Shipshape in Columbia

Covenants: Officials in the Howard County planned community consider how to improve enforcement of aesthetic standards.

November 30, 1999|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Staff

Classical music fills her beige Lexus as retired teacher Maud Banks hunts for violators of the aesthetic order in Columbia. She's armed with a camera, binoculars for reading house numbers and an eye sharpened by years of bird-watching.

"There's the shed," Banks says as she pulls around Sleep Soft Circle, pointing to an unremarkable structure, alongside an otherwise unremarkable house, that can be seen from the street.

"It needs to be in the back in the least visually obtrusive spot possible."

Banks, 61, a former music teacher at Laurel's James Harrison Elementary, is on the front lines of an effort to toughen covenant enforcement in Columbia, a planned town known for its strict rules governing everything from door color to doghouse dimensions. At 32 years old, the community has begun to show its age.

One possibility officials are considering is to deny residents with covenant violations access to the Columbia Association's recreational facilities, meaning that if you don't mow your lawn, you won't build your biceps at the gym.

The Columbia Council instituted that policy in 1997, but it has never been enforced.

Another option is to publish the names of offenders.

A third is to pursue state legislation authorizing the flagging of county land records to alert homebuyers that a property has existing violations. Under that policy, owners would have to pay a fine to have the flags added and removed.

That's the case in the planned community of Res-ton, Va.

"We need to find a stick," says Banks, who, along with the other covenant advisers, supports that approach. "I think [money] is the only thing people listen to."

Now, the system is driven by complaints rather than aggressive inspections, so many violations go unaddressed. Violations that are caught get backlogged in part because of a shortage of manpower.

Then there's perhaps the system's greatest flaw: It relies on voluntary compliance.

In cooperation with residents and covenant advisers, who are paid village employees, Columbia officials are considering some reforms, including increasing the number of inspections, standardizing architectural guidelines from village to village, instituting new penalties for noncompliance, launching an education effort so residents understand covenants and how to comply with them, and expanding the Columbia Association loan program for home repairs.

"You're going to have to have some stronger penalties than what we have," says Earl Jones, a representative on the Columbia Council, CA's governing body, who sits on the Design and Covenant Committee.

The architectural guidelines, which vary from village to village, can get rather specific.

In Wilde Lake, the size of a doghouse is to be proportional to the size of its owner's house. In Oakland Mills, air-conditioning units are not permitted in front windows. In Dorsey's Search, holiday decorations are not to be in place more than 21 days prior to -- or 21 days after -- the holiday in question.

Next on Banks' agenda in Owen Brown village this Wednesday morning is a case involving a single-family home on Spinning Seed that has become the subject of a lawsuit, filed by CA in July. Most covenant cases are settled out of court; about a dozen each year end up there as a last resort.

There used to be an untagged Rolls Royce in the driveway; now it has a rear vanity plate that expired four Septembers ago. Around back, the wooden fence is falling down; the deck is unapproved and in disrepair; and the bushes, trees and weeds are a tangled, overgrown mess.

Next door, Banks doesn't need binoculars (normally used for birding) to spot two other violations: an abandoned refrigerator with the door still on and a loose tree stump. There's also the algae on the siding.

"A solution of Cheer and a little brush will get it right off; no big deal," says Banks.

One member of the Columbia Council, Adam Rich, has suggested categorizing violations by whether they're a "big deal" or not. That way, a basketball pole that hasn't been approved by the village's architecture committee

wouldn't be treated the same way as a deck that's about to collapse.

"If we get bogged down in the picky ones, we're not going to get anywhere," says Rich, who works in real estate.

The covenant committee has debated whether CA should concentrate its resources on prosecuting cases -- some of which have been idle for months -- or stepping up the number of inspections. One proposal is to inspect each property every three or four years -- possibly with the help of an outside inspector hired by CA.

Covenant advisers, whose own properties are inspected for compliance, are resistant to such a move. It's a matter of manpower, they say; it's also a matter of privacy.

Depending on whether you're the complainant or the target of a complaint, covenant advisers are usually thought to be one of two things: overly strict or not nearly strict enough.

"People make fun of the covenant advisers [on both accounts]," says Banks. "They're very scornful. But when you have this many people living in such close proximity, you have to do something."

With the reforms still under discussion, Banks and her colleagues will continue inspecting houses and handling all kinds of complaints -- rational and otherwise.

Once, a man called to complain about sap dripping onto his new Jeep Cherokee from a neighbor's tree.

No covenant violation there.

"Sometimes I feel like a guidance counselor," says Banks.

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