Covenant crackdown causes stir

January 08, 1995|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Columbia resident Darrick Estes gets about 400 television channels with his backyard satellite dish. The device also has brought him a date in court.

Mr. Estes is one of 12 Columbia property owners sued last year by the Columbia Association (CA) over alleged violations of the planned community's architectural guidelines. The number of these suits is on the rise because of two factors: physical decay in older Columbia communities and the Columbia Council's new get-tough policy, encouraged by residents who fear declining property values.

Strict enforcement of Columbia's architectural guidelines -- provided for in the new town's property covenants -- angers some residents who say it's arbitrary and forces them into time-consuming, expensive battles over trivial matters. At the heart of some of the 12 lawsuits filed last year are disputes over backyard doghouses, a house painted red and overgrown lawns.

"The utopia loses its luster," said Paul Yingling, who lost a 1994 court case to CA over an unpainted chimney. "I feel we were the injured party. We were treated wrongly."

But others say enforcement of the guidelines is too weak and slow, creating a perception that CA and village associations are paper tigers -- a perception that may encourage some residents to let properties deteriorate or make unapproved alterations.

"CA would make it so much easier for everyone if it would act on the powers it has and do it now instead of waiting forever," said Lewis Lorton, Kings Contrivance village board member. "There should be swift and certain justice."

Each of Columbia's 10 villages has slightly different detailed guidelines for paint, siding, fences, play equipment and other features -- guidelines overseen by a volunteer architectural board and enforced by a paid part-time adviser.

Generally, advisers act on anonymous complaints, but they may note violations during inspections. After efforts to notify residents of violations -- usually three or more warnings -- cases are sent to CA's Architectural Resource Committee, which decides whether to take legal action.

Most cases are settled at the village level, say village advisers. But for unresponsive residents, the threat of legal action must be real, said Columbia Councilman Michael Rethman, who supports stricter enforcement, especially in older villages.

"To the extent we get a reputation as a town that aggressively enforces its covenants, I think that's good," he said.

Mr. Rethman emphasized that a neighborhood's appearance is crucial to preserving property values, which determines how much revenue will be available for CA and county services. Physical decay is hard to stem and leads to other problems such as crime and vandalism, he said.

"I'm concerned we're at a crossroads," Mr. Rethman said. "I don't want to drive around 15 to 20 years from now and say this place looks beat up. Some neighborhoods do now. [Columbia residents] are paying for covenant enforcement. If covenants aren't enforced, they're being betrayed."

Howard County's courts consistently have upheld CA's right to enforce village architectural guidelines, said Maggie Brown, a CA vice president and chairwoman of its architectural committee.

CA brought only seven cases to court in the four years from 1989 and 1992, compared to six in 1993 and 12 last year. Villages have sent more cases to CA for review in each of the past four years.

Accordingly, CA's enforcement expenses, primarily for legal fees, have soared from $7,000 three years ago to a proposed $93,000 for 1995-1996.

Even some residents caught up in long-running battles say that architectural guidelines generally benefit the community by prohibiting eyesores, such as junked cars or wildly varying house color schemes. But they also argue that enforcement efforts can reflect poor judgment.

Cases that have prompted complaints include these:

* Mr. Estes, a Long Reach village resident, disguised his backyard satellite dish as an oversized, canvas umbrella shading a patio table. Long Reach village cited him in June 1992, saying the dish was unapproved and didn't meet screening requirements.

Over the next 16 months, Mr. Estes sought approval and planted trees to partially screen the dish, but his applications and appeals were denied. Long Reach sent the case to CA, which took it to court.

Unlike most residents who've been sued over architectural guidelines, Mr. Estes has hired an attorney. He says CA is denying his constitutional rights. Furthermore, Mr. Estes and his attorney argue, satellite dishes are not covered by Long Reach's architectural guidelines.

"This isn't Siberia where you can restrict me from access to information," Mr. Estes said. "If there are guidelines as to where to place it, I'll follow them. But if there are none, don't bother me. I know CA has a lot more money and attorneys on call, but when you're right, you're right."

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