Homeowner association decks a new resident

March 05, 1998|By Michael Olesker

CAROL HARRIS moved into her townhouse in the northwest Baltimore County development of Summit Chase on Thanksgiving weekend in 1995, and has spent the following 27 months giving money to builders and architects, giving legal testimony, but rarely giving thanks for the new conditions of her life.

She thought she had a deal when she bought the house, and thought she had papers to prove it. The deal was: She wasn't interested in buying unless she could build a back porch. Her neighbors all have decks behind their houses, but Harris wanted screened walls and a skylight roof on hers.

On Aug. 28, 1995, she signed a sales contract contingent on "obtaining written permission from the homeowners' association to build a screened porch at the rear of the property." A week later, the Summit Chase board of directors met and, according to a letter from board President Ron Levine, "approved the construction of screened-in structures on new and existing decks."

But, between the time of Harris' purchase and the time she moved in, the board had a change of heart - giving Harris considerable expense and anxiety, and sending her into battle with some of her neighbors, the most strident of whom, next-door neighbor Kevin Kamenetz, sits on the Baltimore County Council.

Also, it landed everybody in court, where almost nobody found satisfaction.

"I feel like I live in an enemy camp," says Harris, 51, who owns and runs a management consulting firm after careers in banking and real estate. "It's been horrible. It's been going on since the third week I lived here. I hadn't even finished unpacking yet, hadn't even met my neighbors. I was sued by people I didn't even know."

"It's a violation of the bylaws of the association," says Kamenetz, referring to Harris' decision to build her back porch without final board approval. "I think the law speaks for itself. The rules are made clear when you move in, and we simply had one individual who 'misspoke' on behalf of the association," giving her the apparent go-ahead she needed.

"Misspoke" or not, when Harris got what looked like approval, she locked herself into buying the $173,000 townhouse, and felt pretty good - until a follow-up letter arrived a few weeks later from Bruce D. Brown, attorney for the homeowners' association.

Though this letter said the board of directors "is prepared to abide by the architectural approval which was previously rendered" and "will not take any action whatsoever in regard to the approval which would in any manner jeopardize" the sale of the house to Harris, it also noted "potential resentment and dissatisfaction" of some neighbors.

Harris, not wanting to anger anyone, sent a letter to the board a few days later, saying, "I am sure that once more is known about the quality and nature of this project, they will accept the improvements to be a significant enhancement to the house and to the neighborhood. I relied on the committee's permission to proceed. I have spent a substantial amount of money, and will soon spend a great deal more, preparing to purchase my home."

Three weeks later, Harris received more bad news - a letter that turned down her application because of "impact on adjoining lots," though "the committee remains optimistic that the proposed improvement can ultimately be approved."

On Dec. 28, more bad news: The committee voted unanimously to "disapprove" her plans.

In Harris' mind, it was too late. She had bought the house thinking she had approval, and decided to plunge ahead. Winter was coming, and she wanted the porch built in time for spring. She spent $6,100 for her new cedar porch. The good news is that it's rustic and charming.

The bad news is: It's angered some neighbors who feel it gives their townhouse back yards a crowded look. It's angered Kamenetz. And it prompted him and the neighbor on Harris' other side to sue her - saying that she never had approval for the specific dimensions of the porch.

In June, in Baltimore County Circuit Court, Judge James T. Smith Jr. seemed to appreciate both sides of the argument. He said Harris had built without approval of specific measurements (it's about a foot too close to Kamanetz's next-door deck) and said she'd violated the community association's rules.

But he also said Harris had relied on the board's initial approval when she settled on the house - and that the board "must grant final approval to a screened-in porch" that is "generally consistent" with the plan originally approved.

Thus, a final problem: The board wants Harris to narrow the porch by about a foot - specifically, the foot closest to Kamenetz's property. To do this means a new wall would be constructed midway across Harris' kitchen window - and would cost thousands of dollars more.

"The rules are clear when you move in," Kamenetz says. "The board has to approve, and this board said it creates a closed-in feeling. It's a reasonable dispute. When there are reasonable disputees, litigation ensues."

Not any more, it won't. Last week, Harris, deciding she'd had enough contentiousness, quietly put her house up for sale.

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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