Property standards misunderstood, ignored Covenants irk some residents

November 09, 1993|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

In many places, a shed would be a shed.

In Jeffrey L. Underwood's back yard in Owen Brown village, a shed is the cause for a lawsuit and a private property owner's fight against community "police action."

The Columbia Association's case against Mr. Underwood is one of four lawsuits involving covenant violations the association filed in Howard Circuit Court in October, including three on behalf of Owen Brown village.

The case illustrates how enforcement of Columbia's guidelines for exterior property alterations or additions, intended to maintain neighborhoods' appearances and property values, sometimes irk residents who feel their individual rights are being trampled.

The three other lawsuits, which charge property owners with failures to maintain property or making improvements without applying to architectural committees, show how the covenants sometimes are misunderstood or ignored.

Oakland Mills village resident Neil Noble, a member of that village's Resident Architectural Committee, said covenants are ignored too often, even though the unincorporated city's rigorous architectural standards are well known "from Maryland to California."

"People know about these covenants before they buy here," said Mr. Noble, emphasizing that his views are personal and do not represent those of the architectural committee.

He said the committee recently considered a violation in which a resident cut down several trees without approval, lamenting that the committee has little enforcement power "after the fact."

"People don't give a damn about covenants and guidelines, and that's the tragedy," Mr. Noble said.

Mr. Underwood's interpretation of the shed dispute is that he would have no choice but to tear down his shed to satisfy the covenant enforcers. He said he's willing to put new shingles on the worn-out roof.

Owen Brown covenant adviser Ottilie Grim said the village wants Mr. Underwood to make some repairs and structural changes, but has not ordered the shed to be removed.

The dispute has dragged on for nearly five years, with both sides clinging to their positions.

"I'm going to court to make my case," said Mr. Underwood, a principal broker for UNcommon Realty who lives in Owen Brown and owns several rental properties in the area, including the Sleepsoft Circle duplex with the controversial shed.

"I'm very much in favor of standing on your principles," he said, "even if it will cost you money standing up to police action."

Ms. Grim said the covenant violation lawsuits are the first that Owen Brown has taken to court in her two years on the job.

"It's very unusual for us to have to go to court," said Wanda Hurt, vice chairwoman of the Owen Brown village board, which becomes involved in the multi-tiered review and enforcement process when violations remain unresolved.

But covenant violations are not uncommon, Ms. Hurt said.

"You'd be surprised at the number of violations," she said, drawing her conclusions from her door-to-door campaigning as a village board candidate. She said she noticed violations such as red-brick driveways, unauthorized paints and "little gizmos here and there people had done to embellish houses."

The covenant adviser only investigates complaints received from residents and does not search for violations. After a series of notices, a violation can be forwarded from a village to a Columbia Association architectural committee, which makes final determinations on whether charges should be brought in court.

Court papers say Mr. Underwood's shed is in violation because it is in "disrepair," has a roof peak that extends above a surrounding fence and has been connected to the fence and the house by a "roof extension" without approval.

Mr. Underwood responded that he bought the house with the existing shed in 1984, and that the previous owner had applied to build it.

That owner did receive approval in 1982 to build a fence and an 8-foot by 12-foot shed, the association agrees, but constructed one that violated standards.

The sloped, extended roof is necessary to prevent water damage to the basement and the house's foundation, Mr. Underwood said.

In one of the final notices to Mr. Underwood in May 1992, Ms. Grim wrote, "The value of your property, as well as that of others in the neighborhood, is adversely affected by your failure to maintain your property properly."

The other Owen Brown cases involve an abandoned property now owned by an estate executor cited for outdoor maintenance violations, and a residence cited for an accumulation of debris, a deck railing in disrepair and the unauthorized re-siding of a carport that clashes with the house. A case in Kings Contrivance Village involved an outdoor maintenance violation, also on abandoned property.

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