Can a Condo Association-Homeowner Association Define a Species For Service Animals?

Community association boards often waver between doing what’s expected of the community per the bylaws and what’s right to do. Case in point – pets. Many communities prohibit pets for obvious reasons: the noise, the smell, the additional stress on the lawns and property, etc. But holding a strict line could land your association in legal hot water.

That’s because some homeowners require the use of service animals. Seeing-eye dogs are the obvious exception to your board’s rules. And the exception should be made, because to deny a disabled person the right to animal assistance is in direct violation of federal and state disability legislation. But some pet owners are going to great lengths to claim disabilities in order to keep pets that wouldn’t otherwise fall under the definition of a service animal. What about a service monkey to assist the disabled, or a guide horse for the blind? It’s an area of the law that lacks clear definition, and while the Department of Justice has a proposal pending that would exclude exotic animals (such as snakes or other wild animals, there’s no clear legal precedent to follow.

So how do you as a board, decide who in your community is in need of a service animal and who isn’t; what type of animal is considered a service animal and what isn’t. And more importantly, can you legally make those decisions? While your community association may not be comfortable defining what constitutes a service animal, you may be able to put parameters on that animal’s interaction with the rest of your community. For example, if a resident claims that he needs his pet raccoon to reduce his stress levels, your board could require that the animal not come within say 500 feet of another resident.

Community associations should consult with a legal expert to address the issue of service animals. Find out if your state allows for your board to require proof of disability, as well. Check also with your insurance broker to understand what policy requirements you must meet in order to maintain proper coverage. Has this been an issue for your association? How did your board handle it? Do you agree or disagree with their decision?