In a joint effort with the 10 villages, a Columbia Council committee is reviewing ways to toughen covenant enforcement in the community of 87,000.
Covenant advisers and village officials have stepped up criticism in recent months of the enforcement system, which is driven by individual complaints rather than regular property inspections, saying it has no teeth.
"We rely on voluntary compliance: everybody's good will [and] acceptance of the Columbia philosophy of neighborliness," said Maud Banks, the full-time covenant adviser for Owen Brown village.
As Columbia has aged, and families have moved in less because they believe in James W. Rouse's vision and more because crime in Howard County is low and schools are good, officials have begun questioning whether that's enough.
"I think what needs to be decided here is whether the current system is working," said Tom Forno, chairman of the covenant committee and the council representative from Harper's Choice. "I think we need to bring about a more uniform, systematic inspection process" to catch violations that are going unaddressed.
Covenants, which differ from village to village, govern everything from whether residents can install vinyl siding to whether they can build a wheelchair ramp.
Their purpose is to preserve the aesthetic of the planned community, protecting property values.
The covenant committee has proposed several reforms, including: standardizing covenants citywide; increasing the number of property inspections; strengthening penalties; expanding the Columbia Association loan program for home repairs; and launching an educational program to make residents more aware of the covenants and how to comply with them.
Forno said the committee is considering denying residents who are in violation of covenants access to Columbia Association recreational facilities.
That policy has been on the books since 1997, but it has not been enforced, he said.
"What a wallop if a family with two children wants to go to the swimming pool and they've had this outstanding violation," said Forno. "It gives us another tool."
While there seems to be agreement on issues such as increased education and stricter penalties, the covenant advisers generally oppose what the committee calls "pro-active" property inspections, in part because they don't want to infringe on residents' privacy.
Another reason, they say, is pragmatic.
"Right now, there isn't the money," said Banks.
Banks, who is responsible for 4,000 properties, said her village will request additional funding for covenant enforcement in the association's fiscal year 2001 budget.
"We would like more enforcement here," she said.
The idea of standardizing covenants troubles some village officials, who feel such a move would compromise the uniqueness of each village.
"There's too many variances in architectural style between all the different villages, and there's variance within the villages," said Mary Metzler, a part-time covenant adviser for Hickory Ridge.
Basketball hoops and poles, for instance, shouldn't have to be situated the same way in Clemens Crossing as they are in, say, River Hill or Dorsey's Search, where driveways tend to be longer, Metzler said.
Violations are initially handled at the village level by the covenant advisers.
If the dispute can't be resolved, the complaint is referred to the Architectural Resource Committee, which decides whether to forward it to the Columbia Association legal department.
In July, the association filed five lawsuits against homeowners in Howard Circuit Court for alleged violations ranging from relocating a fence without permission to failing to trim backyard trees and bushes.
Although most cases are resolved out of court, there is near universal agreement that adding at least one staff member to the legal office, which is staffed by one attorney, would help streamline the covenant enforcement process.
The Columbia Council has discussed including funds in the fiscal year 2001 budget for that purpose.
"If we can investigate all of these issues and come up with some recommendations to the council, that would be our goal," said Forno. "But the deciding factor here is not the council. Covenant enforcement is a responsibility -- and it lies within the purview -- of the community associations."
The committee's next meeting is scheduled at 7: 30 p.m. Nov. 8 at Columbia Association headquarters.