Harry Homeowner Breaks the Rules

November 08, 1993

The events that led to a resignation and other turmoil on the Crofton Civic Association recently tell the same story that gets played out in suburban communities regularly these days. It goes like this:

Harry Homeowner buys a place in a subdivision with covenants. Harry doesn't read the covenants.

Harry decides to erect a basketball hoop in his driveway, or to park his speedboat on the street, or to tear down the trees in his yard -- all actions forbidden by the covenants. The homeowners association -- a group of Harry's neighbors who volunteered to enforce the rules -- order him to obey the covenants.

Harry becomes a hero to some neighbors who, like him, see the covenants as socialist curbs of individual freedom. He becomes a pariah to other neighbors, who feel the covenants protect the look and property values of their communities.

Too often, as in the Crofton case, Harry Homeowner, a.k.a. Harry Scofflaw, wins. The associations usually lack the will or the money to fend off in court every covenant breach.

A member of the covenant committee of the homeowners association in Crofton quit last week, deeming his efforts a "waste of time" after the board voted not to sue a resident who built a basketball court in front of his home. The innocence of a driveway game of hoops is beside the point: If the resident wanted a basketball court in front of his home, he should have bought property in a place other than Crofton.

Some 150,000 homeowners associations dot the country, including 8,000 in Maryland. They've been misunderstood since Day One, when Edward H. Bouton created the first such suburban zoning code for the Roland Park section of Baltimore City a century ago. He even had to advertise to "correct the erroneous impressions as to restrictions on Roland Park lots."

Crofton isn't alone: Just last month, a Pasadena man tried to use his car to block a brigade of bulldozers from carrying out his neighbor's orders to clear the woods between their homes. Before he could argue that such deforestation violated the covenants, the dozers turned the trees into dust. That dispute is being worked out.

Many people do not recognize their obligations within these communities. While state government can't get involved in private associations, it should require the real estate community to make even clearer to prospective home buyers that covenants aren't helpful hints; they're firm rules.

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