Damages set in lawsuit over condos

Developer must pay to make Arundel units disabled-accessible

`Day of reckoning'

Project determined to be in violation of Fair Housing Act

April 22, 2000|By Eric Siegel and Gail Gibson | Eric Siegel and Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Ruling in a precedent-setting case involving fair housing laws, a federal judge in Baltimore has ordered the developer of an Anne Arundel County condominium project to pay $333,145 to make common areas accessible to the disabled and to retrofit individual units.

The order by U.S. District Senior Judge Walter E. Black against LOB Inc., developer of the 156-unit Lions Gate condominium in Odenton, is in addition to a $240,000 settlement agreed to by Rommel Builders and John A. Rommel in the four-year-old suit brought by the fair housing advocacy group Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc.

Black's order follows a weeklong trial in November to set damages, and comes a year after he found that the developer and builder of the 12-building garden apartment project had violated federal law by failing to make the units accessible towheelchair users.

The Lions Gate case is believed to be the first involving federal fair housing laws in which a judge has ruled. Although several similar lawsuits have been filed in Baltimore and elsewhere, most have been settled out of court or are still pending.

"What [the order] says is, `Comply with the law while you're building the development at nominal cost. If you don't, it may take us 10 years, but we're going to come after you and it's going to cost you,' " said Andrew D. Levy, a private attorney who filed the suit on behalf of Baltimore Neighborhoods.

"You can delay the day of reckoning, but you can't put it off forever," added Levy, a partner in the law firm of Brown, Goldstein & Levy.

Martin Dyer, former associate director with Baltimore Neighborhoods, said the ruling would be read nationwide by advocacy groups as well as by builders and developers.

"I think the message that comes across very clearly out of this is people with disabilities are part of the population," and cannot be dismissed by builders, he said.

Attorneys for LOB, which developed the project in the early 1990s, could not be reached for comment.

Donald Messenger, the Beltsville attorney who represented Rommel Builders, said that builders and developers were vulnerable to litigation because the fair housing laws were vaguely worded.

"Somebody who was even very familiar with the statute could still get caught by it," he said.

As part of his order, Black directed the Lions Gate condominium association to take whatever actions were necessary to allow the common areas to be made accessible to the disabled. He did not find the association liable for any wrongdoing, because it was established after the units were built, nor did he assess any monetary damages against it.

The condominium association had argued that the construction work to make the common areas and some units accessible would be a significant inconvenience and disruption to the approximately 300 people who live in Lions Gate, said Frederick S. Sussman, one of the group's attorneys.

"The purposes of the Fair Housing Act could be achieved in other ways," Sussman said. One possibility, he said, would be to provide funding for accessible housing in another location.

The suit against Lions Gate was one of six that Baltimore Neighborhoods brought against area builders and developers in 1996. The others have been settled out of court, in amounts ranging from $75,000 to nearly half a million dollars, Levy said.

Passed by Congress in 1968, the federal Fair Housing Act initially prohibited discrimination based on race, religion and ethnicity. Twenty years later, Congress broadened the scope of the law to include the disabled.

Under the law, multifamily housing projects with four or more units built after March 1991 must be accessible to the disabled. The law requires that common areas be accessible to disabled people and that first-floor apartments be accessible in buildings with no elevators and that all apartments be accessible in buildings with elevators. It also requires bathroom walls to be reinforced so grab bars can be installed at minimal cost.

Black's order requires LOB to pay $50,000 to bring into compliance common areas of the project.

The remaining money would be put in a fund to make 40 noncompliant ground-floor units in Lions Gate accessible. Because those units are already occupied and bringing them into compliance would be voluntary, Black ordered the owners to receive incentive payments of up to $3,000 if they agree to bring their units into compliance.

That figure was $2,000 more than Baltimore Neighborhoods had asked for in its suit.

The U.S. Justice Department filed a friend of the court brief in the case on behalf of Baltimore Neighborhoods.

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