Taking Property Covenants Seriously

January 17, 1995

It should come as no surprise that Columbia residents who are hauled into court because they have violated village covenants aren't happy about it. A good many homeowners like to feel that they can do whatever they want when it comes to their property. That's the American way, right? But when they are informed otherwise and persist in disobeying, they must be made to understand that they are inviting the courts to penalize them.

The covenant challenges described in a recent article in The Sun may seem frivolous -- a house painted the wrong color, a lawn left unmowed -- but they are at the heart of an essential tenet of the planned city of Columbia, not to mention countless other communities with covenants that have sprung up: Every resident has a responsibility to his neighbor to maintain his property in the manner agreed upon at time of purchase. That contract, fully disclosed at closing, protects the property values of all residents.

The Columbia Association has responsibility for seeing that the town's restrictions are followed. Unfortunately, it has not always been diligent about that duty. From 1989 to 1992, the association brought seven cases to court. In 1993 alone, six lawsuits were initiated; last year saw a dozen cases filed. No one relishes more of these clogging the courts, but the formerly flaccid enforcement led many residents to laugh off the covenants. And as Columbia has aged, some areas are showing the effects of lax oversight.

The push to do more has largely been from the bottom up. Prodded by frustrated village officials, the Columbia Association is finally doing something to right the matter. Whereas the council authorized spending $7,000 on covenant litigation three years ago, it has proposed budgeting $93,000 for the coming year. The change is certain to bring complaints from some corners, but accusations of the association trying to institute some totalitarian regime are unfounded.

Maintaining a decent community is everyone's responsibility. Columbia's use of covenants is hardly a secret and isn't even unique any more, as other developments have sought similar protections. But the community's success is tied to how uniformly and seriously the oversight board enforces the rules. It is in the best interest of all Columbians to see that these rules are respected.

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