A Shed Becomes A Point Of Principle

COMMENT

November 14, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

I always get a little skittish when a neighborhood spat gets elevated to the height of a constitutional violation.

Believe me, I've been involved in such tiffs myself. (The word "trees" will always have a special meaning for me, but that's a story for another day).

Right now, I'm much more interested in Jeffrey L. Underwood's fight to keep a shed standing on one of the Columbia properties he owns.

It seems that after five years of wrangling with Mr. Underwood over the shed, the Owen Brown Village Board has grown weary of the matter and has referred it to the Columbia Association, which has taken Mr. Underwood to court.

It is alleged that the Underwood shed violates the village's covenants, which as most Columbians know are the instrument by which conformity is maintained in the name of preserving property values in the planned city.

Mr. Underwood, however, feels terribly aggrieved. What the Columbia Association is doing, he says, amounts to a "police action."

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

Actually, I kind of understand where Mr. Underwood is coming from.

There are just so many rules these days. Rules about dumping garbage, about where you can park your car, about how you can raise your kids. It gets a little scary when, even on your own property, you have to get approval before you can paint an exterior door, put up a fence or . . . heaven forbid, build a shed.

But I've also discovered -- and I'm sure Mr. Underwood has thought about this -- that no matter how onerous the rules sometimes seem, it's nice to have them when your neighbor has decided to turn his driveway into an auto mechanic's shop or is in the habit of hanging wet laundry over his fence.

Community covenants protect us as much as they irritate us. They also alleviate a lot of unnecessary conflict.

Now, I would never report a neighbor, but I understand that from time to time, people have gone to their village architectural committees to complain anonymously about some blight on their street. Better that someone in some official capacity handle the matter, than that I -- I mean that other guy -- get into a confrontation with the resident next door.

When I lived in a town house, I built a small deck off the back that did not have architectural approval. I knew it, and lived in fear that it would be discovered. But I would never claim ignorance.

Mr. Underwood isn't claiming ignorance either. Little wonder, since he is a real estate broker and knows full well that most new residents' first exposure to the covenants is when they close on the sale of a house.

Rather, Mr. Underwood is claiming that the shed was there when he bought the property and it had gotten covenant approval.

True enough, say village officials, except that the shed that was constructed did not, nor does it now, conform to the agreed-upon design. Village officials want Mr. Underwood to repair the shed, including the installation of new shingles on the roof and detaching the roof from an adjacent fence.

Mr. Underwood objects, saying that making those changes will mean dismantling the entire shed.

It is inconceivable to me that this matter was not resolved a long time ago. And remember, the Columbia Association is using the money collected from every Columbia homeowner to prosecute this case.

Have we lost all sense of the absurd?

Covenants have become a fact of life, and not only in Columbia. There are some 150,000 homeowner associations in the country, 8,000 in Maryland alone.

P. Michael Nagle, a Columbia attorney who works on many cases involving covenants, feels they are necessary to bring cohesiveness to a community. Because so many subdivisions have common areas that need to be maintained, not to mention the aesthetics of the neighborhood, homeowner associations and covenants are a must in many places these days, Mr. Nagle believes.

Strangely enough, he does not get involved often in covenant disputes in Columbia.

Why? "Because for the most part, my impression is that the covenants are quite reasonable," he says.

Amen to that. On to the next case.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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