In Columbia, get spiffy or get sued Covenants: A resident of the Howard County community can get a letter from the village board if he doesn't keep his property up to snuff and a trip to court if he fails to comply.

June 03, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

So you live in a Columbia house where you raised your son and put a trampoline in the back yard so he could exercise his asthmatic lungs. Besides your home and family, your other source of pride is your 1974 Corvette that you keep under a $300 custom cover in your driveway.

The home has fared pretty well in the past 21 years, but you get seasonal patches of algae on the side of the house, which you clean every summer. The trampoline has broken, and since your son is going off to college your wife decides she wants to hang plants on the rim.

Little did you know that the algae, the trampoline and the Corvette could land you in court -- even in jail -- for allegedly violating Columbia's strict aesthetic covenants.

You are James M. Stuart, 53, a befuddled and angry Columbia resident, one of several who face court action for what in most neighborhoods might be nothing more than the subject of backyard backbiting.

Stuart's problem is with the Columbia Association and the Owen Brown Village Board, which draft and enforce rules on everything from house color to lawn mowing to algae to unpainted chimneys.

All of this to keep neighborhoods attractive and property values stable.

Every year since a 1994 crackdown on the aesthetic rules -- known as covenants -- the Columbia Association has sued about a dozen residents to ensure upkeep in the aging planned community.

When it goes to court, the association almost always wins. And court records show its attorneys will use the full authority of the law to pursue these cases.

In April, a local judge issued an arrest warrant for John Ables Jr., a Long Reach resident, after he did not appear for a contempt of court hearing on charges that he had failed to fix a broken fence, neaten his lawn and replace rotting trim on his house.

Ables, who had not been arrested as of yesterday, did not return calls seeking comment.

In October, another judge approved a Columbia Association request that a woman be arrested. She was later cleared of responsibility for an unapproved fence on Lacelike Row in Owen Brown Village.

Ignored letters at first

In Stuart's case, he admits he got letters pointing out the problems with his house. At first he ignored them, but eventually he met with the covenant adviser and thought everything was ironed out.

Then last year he was hit with a lawsuit -- the algae are gross, the trampoline is an eyesore, the apparently out-of-commission car a violation.

A Howard County Circuit judge ruled in January that Stuart was in violation of the covenants after he failed to respond to the complaint. He faces a contempt-of-court charge for which he could be jailed.

Ottilie Grim, the covenant adviser who inspected Stuart's home and met with him last summer, says that since the Corvette is properly licensed, it is not in violation and should not have been included in the lawsuit.

Still, the court order -- and threat of a contempt citation -- stands. And after a recent visit, Grimm added bags of mulch in the back of Stuart's house to the list of complaints.

Columbia Association attorney Shelby Tucker-King did not return calls seeking comment on Stuart's case.

"I think it's ludicrous," Stuart said when told by a reporter that his car was legal, months after the suit was filed. "I'm puzzled. I've been puzzled. We're fed up with it. They don't bother with the facts."

Stuart said he recently met with an attorney: "I hate like heck to use money on a lawyer that I could use to send my son to school."

Difference of opinion

The Columbia covenants are revered and reviled, coveted and criticized. Some say they are too strict and arbitrarily enforced. Others say they are too lenient and the enforcement process takes too long. But most agree that the regulations are vital to keeping this planned community looking manicured.

"If you don't [protect] them, you might as well throw them out the door, and you'll lose the atmosphere of the whole city," said Joseph Merke, former chairman of the Columbia Council. "You could end up with some pretty strange things, a chartreuse house where it used to be gray."

The most famous covenant lawsuit was a three-year fight over a satellite dish at a home in Long Reach. The homeowner alleged that he needed the dish for work; the Columbia Association said it was an eyesore. In August 1995, as the case was headed for trial, the homeowner agreed to plant five trees to hide the device.

Most covenant complaints are settled at the village level, officials said. Columbia has 10 villages, each typically governed by a five-member board. Each village has different covenant regulations. Residents receive a copy of them when they purchase the property.

Part-time employees enforce the rules by checking on complaints from neighborhood residents. They visit suspect homes and bring complaints to the village board.

If the problem is not resolved, a case can be referred to the Architectural Review Committee, another village body, which decides whether to take legal action.

Neighbors are watching

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