More court fights on deck Man continues quest to keep TC structure he built on property

Officials say he has violated state law

November 14, 1997|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Frank Citrano moved his family four years ago to a quiet, scenic parcel on the Magothy River in Anne Arundel County, where he could sit on a deck and watch the water.

He built a modest deck, a 15-feet-by-20-feet woodworking wonder wrapped around the oak in his yard.

The problem was that Citrano built his beloved deck within 100 feet of the river shore without getting a permit in violation of state law. He didn't think anybody would notice or care, but his neighbor turned him in. The county told him to take it down.

In the three years since, Citrano has been on a self-described crusade to save his deck, a symbol of the comfortable suburban life he wanted for his family. He is prepared to go to the U.S. Supreme Court if he has to, and he's well on the way.

He has spent more than $30,000 on legal fees, gone through two courts and two appeals boards to the Court of Special Appeals, and he is still going, though he hasn't won a ruling yet.

"It's principle to me now," Citrano said recently, standing on his deck. "I will go to jail before I tear this down."

He isn't the first crusader Assistant Attorney General Marianne M. Mason has faced.

Mason, hired specifically to defend the 1988 law that protects waterways on the Chesapeake Bay, squares off against hundreds of people who try building decks, ponds or swimming pools in the 100 feet of space that the Critical Area Commission calls the "buffer zone."

She has had eight people defend their yard embellishments in Circuit Court this year. Last year, she said, a St. Mary's County resident went to the state Court of Appeals. That court -- the state's highest -- declined to hear the matter.

"You don't realize how many people there are," Mason said. "One person after another stands before the court saying their pool has a special circumstance."

For each one she writes briefs hundreds of pages long. She and her adversaries subpoena handfuls of neighbors, who swear on Bibles for one side or the other.

Ditch-digging, saw-waving amateur pool and deck builders give impassioned speeches about their illegal handiwork. One even cried.

The trials last for hours. Citrano's circuit court transcript runs 200 pages.

"There are convicted murderers out there, and they're fighting -- me," Citrano said, looking down the row of houses next to his. A few of them have decks. "That guy has one. And there's three over there. Everybody's got them but me."

People who built their decks before 1988 aren't affected by the law.

Citrano feels further wronged because he spiraled his deck around a tree; he says he didn't add any extra structure to the buffer zone.

Three members of the county board of appeals even seemed to agree with him -- before ruling against him: "We cannot conclude by using our collective common sense that this deck will adversely impact the environment. We join in the denial because the law requires it, not because it is the right thing to do."

"So why can't I have it?" Citrano asks after reading that paragraph out loud.

Because, Mason maintains, while one deck may seem harmless, hundreds of harmless decks together will eventually hurt the Chesapeake Bay.

"If the commission says, "Oh, we don't want to deal with another pool,' " she said, "what's to prevent everyone else from saying, 'Well, he got one'?"

Citrano's strategy is to keep fighting until he dies -- keeping the disputed deck while his case winds its way through various courts -- or until Mason gives up.

That's not likely. Mason said she hopes others will learn from Citrano's experience that resistance is futile.

"What I am protecting is the integrity of the law that the General Assembly established," she said. " One pool at a time."

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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