Tougher enforcement eyed for neighborhood covenants

Draft report details severe consequences for Columbia offenders

January 11, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Columbia homeowners who paint their front doors pink or whose back porches have fallen into disrepair face a greater likelihood of being caught -- and penalized -- as part of an impending crackdown on covenant violations communitywide.

Under a series of far-reaching policy recommendations in draft form, residents repeatedly notified of violations would be denied access to Columbia Association facilities, such as pools and health clubs. And, under a three-year pilot program that could eventually be expanded throughout the city, homeowners in three older villages would face more aggressive property inspections.

"I think we all agree that this is a significant problem, and it's very, very critical to the overall well-being and the continued success of Columbia," said Earl Jones, the Columbia Council representative for Oakland Mills and a member of the Covenant and Design

Committee. The covenants, which lay out strict guidelines for preserving Columbia's aesthetic appearance, prevent a resident from keeping a broken-down car on cinder blocks in his driveway, for example.

But covenant advisers and other local officials have said for years that the complaint-driven system has left many violations unreported and, barring legal action, many violators unpunished.

Under the pilot program, residents in designated neighborhoods in Harper's Choice, Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake would be notified at the start of the fiscal year that their properties would be subject to inspection at any time that year for violations ranging from unapproved basketball poles to structurally unsound porches.

If the Columbia Council endorses the pilot program and it is embraced by the village associations -- the front line in covenant enforcement -- it could be expanded to all 10 villages, said Tom Forno, chairman of the covenant committee.

The Columbia Association's proposed budget for the 2001 fiscal year, which begins May 1, does not include funds for stepped-up covenant enforcement, but Forno said yesterday he intends to request that they be added. The Columbia Council is expected to adopt the budget by the end of February.

Denying residents with outstanding covenant violations access to association facilities has been a Columbia policy since 1997. But because of confusion over how to implement it, has never been enforced.

Aymee Mallory, the covenant adviser for Dorsey's Search village, has always supported tough penalties. "Some people, it's easy [for them] to ignore [violations]. It's easy, especially when the roof isn't caving in."

Another option, considered a last resort, is to take violators to court.

"We don't want to go after anybody," said Mallory. " All we want is compliance."

The draft report, which the Covenant and Design Committee discussed last night at a meeting, could be presented in final form to the Columbia Council later this month. The council will decide which if any of the proposed policies to fund.

Among other things, the draft report recommends:

Launching an education program to help homeowners understand the covenants and how to comply with them.

Hiring an association "property maintenance officer" to work with covenant advisers to inspect properties and monitor cases.

Adding staff to the associations's one-person legal department, which handles the cases that go to court.

Standardizing guidelines among the villages, where possible, as part of the pilot program.

Increasing the number of paid hours for covenant advisers in the villages participating in the pilot program.

"Some of the recommendations will not be enthusiastically received by all, some will require more research and discussion, and some will cost money," Forno wrote in the draft.

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