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Good Grilling

The barbeque: that quintessential summer experience. A chance to socialize, lazily flip burgers on a warm afternoon, inhale the aroma of hot charcoal and enjoy the great outdoors. Hardly the kind of thing that could tear apart a co-op.

But talk to shareholders at an 18-unit co-op in Chelsea, and you'll hear quite a different story. A ground-floor owner with exclusive access to the building's backyard barbequed several times in the summer of 2002, despite being informed beforehand by long-term owners that barbeque smoke, lighter fluid odors, and unwanted heat funneled up into their apartments. According to two residents, the griller's response was that he had the right to barbeque there, and that those on the upper floors should simply close their windows.

That led to a letter from the board's attorney explaining that barbeques were a violation of the house rules. The griller responded by making it political, rallying other building residents and board members who were sympathetic to his position: it was his backyard, the barbeques didn't occur that often, and he should be able to grill if he wanted.

At the building's annual meeting in September 2002, a new board was elected, consisting of the griller and his supporters. At that meeting, the co-op's attorney explained why the barbeques were in violation of the house rules. While the pro-grillers argued that barbequing wasn't specifically prohibited, the attorney reasoned that no shareholders are allowed to permit anything in their units that interferes with the rights, comfort, and convenience of the other shareholders.

In his defense, the griller presented a letter from his attorney saying that the complaints against him were unreasonable and personal. After the meeting, the anti-grillers were surprised to see that the minutes contained no reference to the attorney's claim that the barbeques were a violation, raising more ire amongst the anti-grillers that the new board was acting solely in its own interest

Now, the summer barbeque season looms and nothing has been resolved. The building's been split down the middle, divided into those who think the barbeques create a nuisance for the shareholders, and those who think it's not such a big deal. The anti-grillers claim that it is not just the barbeques, but also cigarette smoke from the griller's guests that contaminates their apartments. The building's managing agent tried proposing a compromise, in which a barbeque would be held with fans set up to blow the smoke away from the building.

If the barbeques continue this summer, however, the co-op seems destined for more wrangling and possibly a lawsuit. "In a small building, it's kind of dangerous because people think they don't need rules," warns the former board president. "But the people who are law-abiding are the ones who get stepped on."

Robert Apfel, an attorney who practices mediation at New York Mediation Services, says that in a dispute like this, ultimately it is up to the board to regulate the problem. While the shareholder might have exclusive use of the backyard, technically he does not own it and still needs to abide by the house rules. Apfel recommends bringing in a mediator to help engage all the parties in a productive discourse, hopefully leading to a building-wide solution. "It's a no-win situation where people are stuck in conflict and there's tension," he says. "And to resort to the law and the courthouse for these kind of things really isn't a good answer."

The summertime barbeque can cause plenty of problems in condos and co-ops. Fire department regulations, common sense fire safety practices, and the potential for complaints over odors and smells are all considerations that must be weighed by boards when determining whether shareholders can fire up their grills.

The fire department has a page on its web site devoted to barbeque safety ( Propane grills are prohibited on balconies, terraces, and roofs. Charcoal barbeque grills are only allowed on balconies or terraces where there is a ten-foot clearance from the building and any combustible materials like plastic furniture. When grilling, there must be an immediate source of water available, either a garden hose or a four-gallon pail of water. Jim Long, a fire department spokesman, says that, because of the combustible nature of roofing materials, roofs are off-limits to barbequing. Even if there is a deck installed, nobody should be grilling on it.

Building managers say that shareholders often don't know the rules regarding barbeques. "Propane barbeques are illegal and a lot of people aren't quite aware of that, so you have to make them aware of it," says Steve Miller, president of Plymouth Management. "Our feeling is that we want to discourage barbeques as much as possible. On the roof they're very dangerous. In the backyard they tend to annoy people on the upper floors."

Shareholders usually don't continue barbequing once they've been educated. "They generally comply," says Don Wilson, president of Blue Woods Management, "especially when we point out that it's a violation of the fire codes. I think that carries more weight than just telling them it's against the house rules." Steve Greenbaum, director of management at Mark Greenberg Real Estate, recommends that Long Island residents check the local fire codes before grilling, since rules may vary between towns and counties.

For those buildings that do have general-access backyards or courtyards where safe barbeques can occur, grilling can be a nice amenity for the building and a great way for residents and staff to socialize. But complaints about smoke, noxious odors, and environmental nuisances must be dealt with evenly, even if only a small majority of shareholders are affected by the smells. "The major issue [concerning barbeques] is the disturbing of your neighbors," says David Goodman, director of business development at Tudor Realty. "Your neighbors don't want to smell what you're having for dinner."

For those buildings that can do it, a public barbeque area with a sign-up calendar and access rules posted is one way to handle barbequing. By giving shareholders advance notice of barbeques and making access inclusive, the likelihood of complaints over odors is lower than if it's just an individual barbequing.

At a 15-unit co-op on West 18th Street in Chelsea, for instance, a group of shareholders cleaned up a small concrete backyard, turning it into a social area for unit-owners in the building with access to a public-use grill. A calendar is posted where owners can sign up to use the space. All garbage and food scraps must be cleaned up completely after every use, and parties must be open to all residents. Christine Benes, the board president who spearheaded the cleanup, says that smoke may be a problem but she hasn't received any complaints yet. "It should be okay, but we'll see," she says. "It's a nice selling point for the building."

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