Two Laurel Acres neighbors embroiled in a backyard zoning battle forthe past six years got their day in court this Wednesday.
Not that it's a surprise to anyone familiar with the dispute that Charlie Howard and Charles Murphy are in court again -- the news is that this may be the last time.
Howard, who has spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours filing complaints against his neighbor over the construction of a 60-foot pier on Cockey Creek, says he's had enough. He's ready for a cease-fire after this one last legal charge.
"If you're a wimp and somebody does something to hurt you, you just sit back. Believe me, at this point I wish I was a wimp and hadn't wasted the past six years fighting that man. After this case I'm going to drop it. I've already got my house on the market," Howard said.
Across the fence, Murphycalls this latest round of "zoning harassment" the last straw.
"There's not one agency in the county, state and federal government that hasn't been out to look at my property because he's called them on me, and I've gotten all my permits. It's caused so much misery in my family," Murphy said. "I'm talking to my lawyer today about filing a harassment suit against him because to get rid of him, you've got to do something that hurts him. He's going to be sorry he ever heard my name after this next suit."
Murphy says Howard's nit-picking has caused his wife to have a stroke and a heart attack.
At issue in court this week was whether Murphy had a right to build his pier. However, neighbors and county officials who have attempted to intervene say the real issue is the pair's severe personal animosity.
Assistant County Attorney Jamie Baer says she stumbled into "a whole armload"of petty allegations when she took legal action to force Howard to remove an unpermitted privacy fence four years ago. She says the disputes between Howard and Murphy won't end until one of them moves out.
"The courts do take a dim view of being used for proxy wars, but it does give people a place to fight where they don't have to go out and kill each other," she said.
Howard has filed for a court order either to force the removal of Murphy's 60-foot pier or to have his property taxed as improved waterfront property. He also is suing to have the dead-end road that separates the two properties recognized as a public road.
The county code allows only people with improved waterfront property to build piers. Murphy owns two adjacent lots, one developed lot inland and a narrow undeveloped waterfront lot. The latter is taxed as unimproved waterfront property, but the adjacent developed lot is taxed at a non-waterfront rate, State Department of Taxation records show.
Circuit Judge Raymond E. Thieme Jr. has 30 daysto rule on the motion.
Murphy said he filed papers to have his lots consolidated and taxed together back in October 1984. If it wasn'tdone, he said, it's not his fault.
The amount of work Howard, a retired Westinghouse employee, has gone through to fight his neighbor's pier and other zoning violations is astonishing.
A hand-written time-line documenting his complaints to the Laurel Acres community Association, neighborhood mediators, the Army Corps of Engineers, the health, fire and police departments, the county Office of Law, the Department of Inspections and Permits, the State's Attorney's office, and the planning and zoning office -- and at least eight politicians --is a dizzying 23 pages long.
Most of the complaints are technical. But one more serious charge helps illuminate the relationship the two neighbors have had.
Murphy was sentenced to six months probation and fined $50 for attempting to maliciously damage an automobile inFebruary 1988 by burying a two-by-four with 8-inch spikes in the middle of the road that separates the two properties.
Murphy says he was "driven" to booby trap the road because Howard was driving over and tearing up the sod he planted.
Howard says there was never any sod.
Howard also counters that Murphy did not build his pier according to his plans, illegally lengthened it, illegally dredged around his pier and illegally installed electric motion detector lights on the structure. He has photographs of both the dredging and the light, which he says shines in his house at all hours.
"Why don't you askhim about the broken windows on my boat and the broken lights that have been shot out on my pier?" Murphy said.
Howard said he doesn'tknow anything about broken lights or windows.
"I don't want a confrontation with the man. I just want the law to do what the law should do," Howard said. "If somebody perceives that somebody is after them because they broke the law, that's a shame. I truly don't want to hurt this man."