Art project has Federal Hill woman foundering in sea of red tape

November 01, 1991|By Edward Gunts

It is every homeowner's worst nightmare: the thought of launching an expensive renovation project, getting the required permits, and then finding out halfway through that the project is judged to be in violation of the law and may have to be redone.

And Federal Hill property owner Lane Berk, who was sued by the city for installing a 10-foot-tall pylon that spells B-A-L-T-I-M-O-R-E atop her Federal Hill town house, has been reliving it this week in the District Court of Maryland.

Acting as her own attorney, Mrs. Berk has told a story of a bumbling housing department bureaucracy that issued a permit for renovation of her house on Montgomery Street, then ordered her to build something other than the permit called for, then modified the original permit, and then sent violation notices for the work completed under the modified permit.

"It's really a bureaucratic nightmare," District Judge Alan Karlin said after hearing the second day of testimony. "It just upsets me when I see someone who has tried to take care of a property and, I'm not saying the city is wrong, but ends up with all this grief -- when she thinks she's doing the right thing. It's a shame."

Mrs. Berk's tale involves a partially severed foot (hers), a dead inspector (the city's), a contractor who had a nervous breakdown, missing blueprints and countless visits to and from the housing department permit counter.

"It is Kakfa-esque," she said. "It is so arcane and mazelike and twisted. One agency doesn't know what the other is doing, and one person saysone thing one time and something else the next time. It's a morass. It's a mishmosh. That's what it's like, dealing with the city."

City officials admit they may have made mistakes in reviewing the permits and inspecting the work. But they contend that bureaucratic incompetence, if it existed, doesn't clear Mrs. Berk from having to comply with the law. They point to a 1932 Maryland court case in which the judge ruled that a permit issued in error is null and void, and the property owner still has to correct the mistake.

"No one in the city has the right to permit a person to do something that is illegal," said Jyoti Kumta, the lawyer in the city solicitor's office who is arguing the case against Mrs. Berk.

Mrs. Berk was initially brought to court for putting the B-A-L-T-I- M-O-R-E pylon on her roof. City officials said they want her to get a proper permit or take down the pylon. Mrs. Berk insists she does have a permit. The city says it's an illegal sign. She says it's a work of art.

But as the testimony has unfolded, the art controversy has taken a back seat to the story of the city's building permit process -- and what a maze it can be for the uninitiated homeowner.

In her testimony, Mrs. Berk said she originally planned to put an elevator where the pylon is, because she severed part of her foot in a tractor accident and couldn't walk. But when her foot got better and she could walk again she decided she didn't need the elevator, even though plans for it had already been approved as part of her house renovation. Instead of the elevator housing, which would have risen 10 feet above the roofline, she decided to put a sculpture atop the elevator shaft, came up with the the idea for the 10-foot-tall pylon and submitted plans for it.

In other testimony, she and city officials disclosed that:

* City officials at one point designated one of their own designers, Cam McLaughlin, to help Mrs. Berk fabricate the pylon, which is a replica of the city's own B-A-L-T-I-M-O-R-E pylon the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Mrs. Berk said she took that action to mean that the city had no problem with her pylon.

* David Tanner, city zoning code enforcement director, indicated that the pylon design may not have gone through the proper review channels because it was not sent to the person who should have reviewed it for compliance with the urban renewal ordinance for Montgomery Street.

* Stanley Walpert, a plans examiner for the housing department, testified that the review process for Mrs. Berk's house may have been flawed because one of the plans examiners for electrical work died and was not replaced for more than a year.

Mrs. Berk testified that she has tried to do everything the city wants, but her efforts to comply with the city's requirements only seemed to get her in more trouble.

"It's like a bottomless pit. Whatever the city asked me to do, I was careful to do. But I don't know how to deal with a city that says, yes, put it up, and then says, yes, take it down."

Ms. Kumta, the city solicitor, cited as precedent a 1932 Maryland case, Lipsitz vs. Parr, in which the judge ruled that even if officials issue a permit in error, a property owner is still obligated to comply with the law.

Mrs. Berk said that is where she feels like a character from a Franz Kafka novel. She said she spent $16,000 in design fees trying to obtain her permits, and is flabbergasted to find out that they may not mean anything.

Judge Karlin will hear more testimony today. "I give her credit for fighting it," he said. "I admire that she's trying to stand up for what she believes in. It's good to see that there are still people like that."

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