Rules of the neighborhood Covenants: Homeowners who don't want restrictions shouldn't buy in communities that have them.

June 05, 1998

THE PREDICAMENT of James Stuart, the man who thinks it "ludicrous" that the Columbia Association is taking him to court for violating homeowner covenants, is neither new nor unique to the planned city Jim Rouse built in Howard County. Over the years, we have seen countless conflicts involving covenants and similar fracases over alleged zoning infractions.

These disputes pit the notion that a person ought to be able to do what he wants on his property against rules designed to keep neighborhoods attractive and property values stable. Homeowners like the idea of laws and restrictions to ensure that they won't have to look at somebody's too-big garage or overgrown lawn . . . until they run afoul of the rules. Then, suddenly, covenants and zoning laws look trivial and oppressive.

Sometimes the acrimony aroused by these battles and the effort devoted to them does escalate out of proportion to the offense. In Mr. Stuart's case, the problem consists of an old trampoline in the back yard, algae patches on the house and a couple of bags of mulch.

One of the most notorious such disputes in recent memory involved a Greenspring Valley woman's stand of trees. Mary Bowman and Onkar Singh spent seven years and tens of thousands of dollars feuding over the trees, which violated a covenant designed to protect the view by banning hedges. A judge finally ruled that the trees had to go.

The offenders in such cases often appear sympathetic, but they are offenders nonetheless. It's especially hard to defend covenant breakers. Covenants by law must be disclosed before settlement, so there is no excuse for homeowners not knowing the rules.

People who think covenants too severe or silly shouldn't buy in neighborhoods that have them. Those who move in anyway, then flout the restrictions and ignore written citations and court orders are asking for trouble.

They shouldn't feel surprised or victimized when it comes.

Pub Date: 6/05/98

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