Suburban nightmare in Crofton

February 25, 1994

It is the classic 1990s suburban nightmare: You buy a house in suburbia, thinking you are protected from such evils as satellite dishes and cigarette boats parked on the street. You even get a copy of the covenants outlining said protections. Then one day you find out somebody screwed up by never registering the covenants with the county, as required.

That leaves your community with no enforceable covenants. And while you may be willing to sign them to make them binding, your neighbor, who never liked the restrictions in the first place, is thinking a basketball court in his driveway might be nice, after all.

This little neighborhood drama is playing out in the Anne Arundel County community of Crofton Woods. Though residents received copies of covenants when they bought their homes, somehow the restrictions never got approved by the Crofton Civic Association or got registered with the county. Now, residents are split over whether to adopt a new set of covenants.

This is one of those controversies where compromise won't work. Either virtually every homeowner agrees to sign the covenants, or Crofton Woods remains covenant-less.

The purpose of covenants is to provide unity and continuity; they are a group decision, a whole community agreeing it does not want pink houses, backyard tool sheds or whatever. Unless everybody adheres to the restrictions (or gets permission when they don't), there is no point in having them.

If there's a lesson for others in Crofton Woods' dilemma, it is that home buyers cannot be too careful about checking the covenant situation before they buy. Although the law requires sellers to provide a copy of all covenants at the time of contract, even buyers who sign off on them often fail to understand the provisions or to take them seriously. Even in Crofton, where covenants are prevalent enough that one would expect residents to be knowledgeable about them, the town office has been handing out copies of news articles on this issue to help individuals understand what is going on.

The best advice: If you want the freedom to do whatever you will with your property, don't buy in a covenanted community. And if you want to make certain that your neighbors will never be able to plant a satellite dish in their front yard, make sure the covenant that says they can't is worth the paper it is printed on.

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