'Disguised' television satellite dish upsets three Crofton homeowners

September 13, 1992|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

Three homeowners in a Crofton development want the community association to take a neighbor to court over a satellite dish dressed up as a common deck umbrella.

The dish violates the community's restrictive covenants because its owner never sought the approval of the association's architectural committee, the women have complained. And the association has a duty to enforce covenants.

But lawyers for Jeff Rimer, the owner of the dish, argue that banning the dish would violate the First Amendment and a Federal Communications Commission regulation.

And they say the civic association did not have jurisdiction over the community's covenants when Mr. Rimer, sports director for WBAL radio, installed his dish last year. There was no architectural committee to approach.

One of the lawyers is from a national organization of satellite dish owners based in California that is prepared to take what could be a precedent setting case to court.

Crofton officials are expected to decide within weeks whether to pursue the case. They are waiting for Mr. Rimer to submit formal plans for the dish to the architectural committee.

"The Rimer case could have broad ramifications for covenants everywhere," said Town Manager Jordan L. Harding.

The Crofton Orchards community, 65 homes worth about $200,000 each, has been divided over covenants for two years, with complaints ranging from illegal basketball hoops to backyard sheds and playpens.

The three complainants in the Rimer case all live on Mr. Rimer's street, in the 1700 block of Peartree Lane, in the southeast corner of Crofton near the intersection of Md. Route 450 and Davidsonville Road.

Regardless of what the dish looks like, they say, it is a violation that should be dealt with.

"To me it looks like a satellite dish covered with a piece of nylon," said Frances Wheat, who lives two houses from Mr. Rimer's.

"The issue is that satellite dishes are not allowed."

Not taking Mr. Rimer to court, Ms. Wheat said, would set a bad precedent:

"It would make Crofton impotent in enforcing covenants."

"Let me assure you that it is much more than a deck umbrella," wrote Marie Curran, who lives next door to Mr. Rimer and formally complained to the civic association.

"I know that because I have a blue deck umbrella on my back deck during the appropriate season and my umbrella does not receive 197 television channels."

But Lauritz Helland, Mr. Rimer's lawyer and general counsel for the American Satellite Television Alliance, said the dish shouldn't bother anyone.

"The complainants get all caught up in the principle of the thing to the total exclusion of reason," he said.

"The aesthetic value of the neighborhood is not an issue. The principle seems to be more important than what the rules were written to protect.

"These people just don't want a satellite dish in their community," Mr. Helland said. "It doesn't matter that they can't see it."

Mr. Rimer would not comment for this article, citing the negotiations. But some of his neighbors are on his side. They have pleaded in letters to the civic association to drop the case.

Blaming a "handful of misguided residents" who want the dish removed, Thomas Frank said most people who live in Crofton Orchards "agree that this is not a problem."

"The simple fact that it took months for anyone to realize that this indeed was more than an umbrella demonstrates that it is not a problem for the community," he wrote.

Another neighbor, Cheryl Martin, objected "to this waste of my tax dollars to attempt to enforce such frivolity."

The Crofton Civic Association administers a special tax district that has an annual budget of $550,000, about half of which is spent on a five-member police force.

If Crofton's Architectural Review Committee decides the dish is compatible with the neighborhood and is not harmful to anyone, the association will take no further action.

But if the committee decides otherwise, the association must decide whether to pursue the case.

OC "The association has an obligation to follow up on complaints,"

said Crofton's attorney, Frederick Sussman. "What may seem like a minute and trivial issue to one person may be a significant issue to another person."

Mr. Sussman and Mr. Harding would not discuss legal plans. But Mr. Helland said he will challenge Crofton on several fronts, including First Amendment issues and whether the civic association can use tax district money to enforce covenant violations.

Mr. Helland said a Federal Communications Commission regulation forbids governments from interfering with satellite reception.

If tax money is used for covenant enforcement, he said that turns civic association members into legislators, meaning spending public money to prohibit a satellite dish could violate the FCC regulation.

Crofton officials have already spent $1,500 on the Rimer case.

Mr. Helland pointed to a similar California case he worked on earlier this year in which a state appellate court held that because people couldn't see a satellite dish, covenant restrictions were not violated.

"The question becomes whether the ban against a satellite dish that cannot be seen promotes any legitimate goal of the association," the court ruled. "It clearly does not."

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