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Esfahani v. Steelwood Property Owners' Association, Inc.

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

August 10, 2018

Shahin Shawn Esfahani
Steelwood Property Owners' Association, Inc.

          Appeal from Baldwin Circuit Court (CV-14-901248)

          THOMAS, JUDGE.

         Shahin Shawn Esfahani appeals from a judgment of the Baldwin Circuit Court ("the trial court") in favor of Steelwood Property Owners' Association, Inc. ("the Association"), regarding a decision of the Association's Architectural Review Board ("the ARB") to deny approval of certain palm trees that Esfahani planted on his property. We affirm the judgment in part and reverse it in part.


         Steelwood is a residential subdivision in Baldwin County. In 2012, Esfahani acquired a fee-simple interest in real property located within Steelwood via a warranty deed that incorporated by reference, among other things, a number of restrictive covenants and the Association's bylaws. The restrictions set out in Steelwood's "declaration of rights, covenants, restrictions, affirmative obligations and conditions" ("Steelwood's declaration") that are pertinent to this appeal provide:

"Section 7.01 RESPONSIBILITIES OF OWNERS .... No Owner shall (a) decorate, change or otherwise alter the appearance of any portion of the exterior of a dwelling or the landscaping, grounds or other improvements within a Lot unless such decoration, change or alteration is first approved, in writing, by the Developer or the [ARB] ....
"Section 13.04 PURPOSE. In order to preserve and enhance the natural setting, beauty and utility of the Development, to establish and preserve a harmonious and aesthetically pleasing design for the Development, and to protect and promote the value of the Development and its environment, the Lots, and all improvements located therein or thereon shall be subject to the restrictions set forth in this Declaration. Every grantee of any interest in the Development, by acceptance of a deed or other conveyance of such interest, agrees to be bound by the provisions of this Declaration.
"Section 13.07 ARCHITECTURAL APPROVAL. To preserve the architectural and aesthetic appearance of the Development, no construction of improvements of any nature ... shall be commenced ... unless and until two (2) copies of the plans and specifications relation data shall have been submitted and approved in writing by the [ARB] .... In the event the [ARB] shall determine that such plans and specifications have not been approved ... the [ARB] shall be entitled to ... require the removal ... of any work in place which does not comply with approved plans and specifications.
"Section 13.08 LANDSCAPING APPROVAL. No landscaping, grading, excavation, or filling of any nature whatsoever shall be implemented and installed by any Owner, other than the Developer, unless and until the plans therefor have been submitted to and approved in writing by the [ARB]. The provision of Section 13.07 hereof regarding ... right to enjoin and/or require removal ... shall also be applicable to any proposed landscaping ....
"Section 15.03 ENFORCEMENT. This Declaration shall be enforceable by the Association, the Developer, the [ARB], or any Member of the Association by a proceeding at law or in equity against any person or persons violating or attempting to violate or circumvent any covenant or restriction, either to restrain violation or to recover damages, and to enforce any lien created by this Declaration; and failure by the Association or any Member or the Developer to enforce any covenant or restriction herein contained for any period of time shall in no event be deemed a waiver or estoppel of the right of any of the foregoing to enforce the same thereafter."

         In 2013, Esfahani installed palm trees on his property, some in planters near his swimming pool and some planted in the ground. In October 2014, the Association filed a complaint in the trial court alleging that Esfahani had failed to obtain the ARB's approval before installing the palm trees, that the ARB had denied approval of some the palm trees after Esfahani submitted a landscaping plan for approval, and that Esfahani had subsequently refused to remove the palm trees that the ARB had not approved. The Association sought a declaratory judgment, requested preliminary and permanent injunctions to require removal of "all landscaping or architectural ornaments" that violated the restrictive covenants and to prevent additional landscaping without the ARB's approval, and asserted a count for "breach of covenants/constructive trust/association lien" against Esfahani. Esfahani answered the Association's complaint and asserted various affirmative defenses.

         A trial at which ore tenus evidence was received was conducted on May 30, 2017. The Association called Richard Miller to testify. Miller had been a principal in the entity that developed Steelwood and, at the time of the trial, was a member of the Association's board of directors and served on the ARB. He also lived adjacent to Esfahani. Miller testified that Esfahani had purchased his Steelwood property after the previous owners' house burned; he said a "very small" portion of the existing landscaping was also burned during that fire.

         Miller testified that he had seen the palm trees at issue when they were delivered to Esfahani's property and that he had informed Esfahani that the ARB was unlikely to approve their installation. Miller said that Esfahani had indicated that he would "he[e]l them in," which Miller "took ... to mean just to get them in the ground so they wouldn't be sitting out exposed but not planted to the degree that you would if you were doing it on a permanent basis." Miller said that Esfahani had not submitted a landscaping plan to the ARB before their conversation regarding the palm trees and that he had informed Esfahani that the ARB would need to review a plan.

         Miller testified regarding a number of letters in which the ARB had informed Esfahani of, among other things, the need to obtain the ARB's approval of his landscaping plan, which, the letters indicate, Esfahani eventually submitted. The ARB approved aspects of Esfahani's landscaping plan but determined that Esfahani's palm trees, other than some that had been installed around his swimming pool, violated Steelwood's restrictive covenants. Miller explained during cross-examination that the ARB had approved the palm trees that were installed near Esfahani's pool "because they were, in fact, in planters and not in the yard itself[, ] and we wanted to work with [Esfahani] on that."

         In one of the letters, the ARB also requested that Esfahani submit a "landscape buffer" plan that would depict landscaping designed to shield certain of Esfahani's proposed landscaping features from public view. The ARB eventually directed Esfahani to remove his palm trees, other than those that had been installed near his swimming pool, but Esfahani did not do so. Miller said that there were no other palm trees like Esfahani's in Steelwood.

         Miller testified that Esfahani had also installed certain decorative items, such as sculptures and fountains, and that, although a landscaping buffer had eventually been installed, it was not of sufficient height to block the decorative items from view. He asked that the trial court order Esfahani to remove the decorative items until the landscaping buffer had grown sufficiently tall, which, he estimated, would be approximately 10 feet high, or to alternatively order Esfahani to install a landscaping buffer of sufficient height.

         Miller was cross-examined extensively. Miller testified that Esfahani had "obviously" misunderstood what sort of landscaping plan he was required to submit to the ARB for approval. He also admitted that Steelwood's restrictive covenants did not specifically prohibit palm trees, or any particular species of tree for that matter. He further admitted that the restrictive covenants did not require that plants installed within Steelwood be "indigenous," although that descriptor had been used in at least one letter from the ARB to explain why Esfahani's palm trees were prohibited. Miller said that using that descriptor was "a poor choice of words in this correspondence."

         Miller opined that Esfahani's palm trees did not "blend harmoniously with the natural landscape on the adjoining lots and so on." He admitted that there was no specific document that defined what plants would be harmonious. He was asked about other palm plants in Steelwood, which had apparently been approved by the ARB, and, in at least one instance, he indicated that those plants were harmonious because the ARB had decided they were.

         During redirect examination, Miller said that the ARB's intent had been to differentiate between shrubs or bushes and trees. Regarding Esfahani's landscaping, Miller also admitted: "They've got a gorgeous -- everything they've done is magnificent." During redirect examination, he said that Esfahani's palm trees were "[b]eautiful."

         At the close of the Association's case-in-chief, Esfahani orally moved for a judgment as a matter of law, which the trial court denied. Esfahani called Deborah Newberry as a witness. Newberry said that she had served on the Association's board of directors from the latter part of 2010 through the beginning of 2013 and had been president of the board for a substantial portion of that time. She testified that, during that time, she had attempted to appoint herself to the ARB but had been informed by Miller that she lacked authority to do so.

         Regarding her Steelwood residence, Newberry said that the ARB had approved the landscaping plan for that property. When asked by Esfahani's attorney whether the plan had included "[a] palm of some kind," Newberry testified: "I checked yesterday[, ] and we have five in our yard." During cross-examination, Newberry testified that the height of those plants ranged from approximately 4 feet to approximately 10 feet. She also said that she had modified the landscaping on her property without submitting a formal landscaping plan to the ARB, apparently without incident. She opined that Esfahani's palm trees did not negatively impact any aspect of Steelwood.

         Esfahani also testified. He indicated that he and his wife had met with Miller and his wife on at least two occasions to discuss his purchase of the property in Steelwood and his intentions regarding reconstruction since the preexisting house had been burned. Esfahani said the following regarding one of the meetings:

"I asked if there was any permits, anything that I need[ed] to do, any submissions of plans to them. And the response was, no, that as long as I build the same house, nothing needed to be added. And as for landscaping, they said as long as it's done in good taste, we would be agreeable and amicable. With that in mind, I pulled the permits from the city."

         He related the following regarding the palm trees at issue:

"[W]e purchased 13 or 14 palm trees. Eight of them were delivered immediately[, ] and we planted those. ... Two weeks went by[, ] and the second order came in for the front and around the house. At that point, ... Miller walked up to my property and said those palm trees need to be approved by the ARB, the homeowner association. The palm trees around my pool area had already been planted for two weeks[, ] and there w[as] no discussion regarding them being temporarily in as I heard ... Miller testify earlier."

         Esfahani said that the conversation had taken place in his front yard and that Miller had expressed concern over the palm trees not being "indigenous to th[e] area." Esfahani testified that, approximately two days after his encounter with Miller, he had received a letter from the ARB asking for a formal landscaping plan. Esfahani eventually hired a landscape architect who, he said, Miller's wife had "highly recommended" to assist with developing a landscaping plan.

         Efahani testified that he subsequently met with the ARB. He said that Miller's wife

"was a little distraught or upset about the fact that these trees don't belong in Alabama, they're more of a south Florida flavor, and that would disturb the look of the community. And not understanding the root of it, you know, we went back and forth, you know, as to whether they are indigenous or not. I had seen them all around here and Orange Beach[, ] and so we had a simple disagreement as to, you know, whether they belong here or don't belong here."

         Esfahani said that the ARB later informed him that the palm trees would not be approved because they were not harmonious after, he opined, the ARB learned that most of the plants in Steelwood were not, in fact, "indigenous."

         Regarding the landscaping buffer, Esfahani stated:

"So we planted roughly about 30 camellias[, ] and they were five gallon camelias. And they grow at a reasonable rate[, ] but they don't grow fast. We also fenced it so it is harder to see through from the angle that you're at the golf course because that was the issue, that golfers may be offended."

         When asked by his attorney why he had not removed the palm trees at issue after the ARB denied approval of ...

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