Landowner On Attack Against 'Harassment'

Says Homeowners Group Filesfalse Complaints

July 28, 1991|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff writer

A drive by Bruce Echard's property on Defense Highway in Gambrills reveals nothing out of the ordinary: an empty field with a gate acrossthe gravel driveway and no-trespassing signs posted on roadside trees.

The long driveway leads past the field, ending in front of a two-story shack that used to be a home for chickens. Farther back is a small pump house.

Old engine parts lie scattered near a tiny pond and along a winding stream that leads out to the road -- reminders of how the propertylooked when Bruce Echard bought it three years ago.

Back then, the 38-year-old welder says, the land was a debris-strewn lot, litteredwith junked cars, buses and enough rotting tires to provide mosquitoes with their own minicountry.

Echard said he spent thousands of dollars cleaning up the 2.1 acres. But in March 1989 -- just as he wasstarting to farm the land -- a county inspector paid him a visit. Hedidn't like what he saw and told Echard to stop.

Echard was confused. He was cleaning up the land and trying to plant corn and wheat on his agriculturally zoned property, and the county tells him he's doing something wrong.

He says that one visit from the county snowballed into constant inspections, most of which found nothing wrong. But instead of letting the matter drop, the inspectors passed their findings to other agencies.

And it wasn't just the county. Soon, he was visited by state and federal government officials.

At the heartof the complaints is a neighboring homeowners association, located on a ridge about three-quarters of a mile through the woods from Echard's property.

Echard filed a $950,000 lawsuit against the Cheval Trails Homeowners Association and the county, state and federal governments, claiming the association is harassing him by filing false complaints. And he claims the government is going along by continuously sending inspectors, trespassing in the process.

Though current and past members of the homeowners association refused to be interviewed,a lawyer representing their insurance company says the group is using its legal right to bring what it feels is a bad situation to the attention of authorities.

The authorities, meanwhile, say they have little choice but to act on the complaints, even if they find nothingwrong.

"It's like two neighbors constantly fighting it out and calling the police, who keep coming out and coming out," Assistant County Attorney John Breads says. "Unfortunately, because we're one of the ones being called, we got hauled in the suit along with everyone else.

"(Cheval Trails) kept calling the county, 'You didn't find anything wrong this time, but come out again,' " Breads says. "The county is caught in the middle on something where there might not be anything wrong in the first place."

Echard says he doesn't even know how many inspections took place or how many complaints have been lodgedagainst him. He is suing four agencies and has documentation of at least three inspections, two of which identify Gary Probst, former head of the homeowners association, as the complainant.

Echard, who lives part time in Annapolis and part time in a trailer on the Gambrills property, bought the land in June 1988, from Rex Sheets for $17,000. For two years, Echard says, he labored to clean up the land, whichhe wants to turn into a Paulownia tree farm, by removing cars, transmissions, tires and even the shell of an MTA bus.


Richard Schimel, the lawyer representing the homeowners association's insurance company, insists the continuing complaints have nothing to do with any grudge. But Echard believes otherwise, pointing to a court case over who actually owns the property.

The dispute, which ended April 3when Circuit Court Judge Robert H. Heller Jr. ruled that Echard had "absolute ownership," dates back to 1979, when the Mantaro Development Co. built Cheval Trails.

The company placed a number of acres intrust with the county as open space. Included in that property was what would become Echard's 2.1 acres. In April 1990, he hired a lawyerto fight the county, which was forced to go to court even though County Attorney Bob Pollock says it had no defense because the land wasn't surveyed properly.

Cheval Trails, Echard believes, is not happywith him or his fight to keep the property.

"These complaints, basically, were called in, I believe, by the Cheval Trails Homeowners Association to harass me," Echard testified in court, as part of his suit. "One of the inspectors for Anne Arundel County, when he was served (a summons to appear), identified my name and said, 'Oh, Mr. Echard, that's the one Cheval Trails is harassing.'

"I do not believe that it is the function of these different administrators to be engaged in a personal revenge scenario for a homeowners association."

Echard's first encounter with inspectors came in April 1989, when he received a stop-work order following a visit from Jim Thomas, of the county's grading and sediment control division.

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