In suburbia, coming out against development plans and rezoning requests seems almost as much a part of life as youth soccer games and backyard barbecues. But residents of one Pikesville community are biting their tongues about a proposal for condominiums and office buildings in their neighborhood.
Their voices have been squelched by some unusual language in the contracts they signed when buying their homes in the Avalon Courtyard Homes community - and, they say, by a developer's veiled but heavy-handed threats to take legal action if they speak out. "At risk of being sued, I rise to speak for myself, and those who have been silenced, to oppose this rezoning request," Avalon resident Howard Rudo told stunned members of the Baltimore County planning board at a recent hearing on zoning proposals for the Pikesville and Randallstown areas. "My grandfather and my great-grandfather came to this country to avoid the czar. Others of my neighbors have recently arrived from Kiev for the land of freedom. And this is what we are faced with today."
An informal survey of lawyers and county government officials found no one who could recall seeing a restriction quite like the one placed on residents of Avalon, where homes sell for as much as $300,000.
The effect of the restrictions: Homeowners in the Avalon development can't oppose - and, indeed, are required under threat of lawsuit to support - virtually any building plan for their community.
Residents say that few, if any, of the homebuyers realized that their contracts contained a clause in which they granted the developer "power of attorney" to consent, on the homeowner's behalf, to any "necessary or proper" changes in plans for the community. "This is amazing language," Brenda Bratton Blom, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said after reviewing a portion of the community's standard sales contract. "I have not seen this kind of language before."
Robert V. Hess, a member of the county planning board, said the provision bothers him because it could limit the information he uses to weigh the zoning request. "It's a little strange, a little scary," Hess said. "You have to wonder what the intent of the developer was to include language like that."
Officials at Questar Homes, developers of Avalon, said they included the language in their sales contract because the project has previously faced opposition, starting with its proposal more than seven years ago.
Questar President Stephen M. Gorn said the company wanted a "buffer" against opposition from within the development. "The people that signed these purchase contracts were making an independent decision to buy a home from us," he said. "To me, if you sign an agreement, and should have read it, you are bound to adhere to the agreement."
Gorn defended the letters sent to homeowners, saying: "I don't think that's intimidation. That's being fair and equitable with one another."
The developer said similar language has been used in contracts in some of his companies' other developments, but he would not identify them.
He said none of the more than 50 homebuyers in Avalon Courtyard Homes objected at the time of their purchase to the language, which is on page eight of a sales contract of about 12 pages, in a paragraph labeled, "Notice to Purchaser."
Lawyers didn't notice
Still, at least two attorneys who bought homes there said they did not notice the clause.
Similar language is in a 2-inch-thick document establishing an umbrella organization for community associations at Avalon East - meaning it could apply to residents of townhouses and apartment-style condominiums in Avalon, along with the courtyard homes residents.
Also, it could apply to anyone who buys a home from a current resident.
David I. Caplan, property manager for the Avalon Courtyard Homes community association, said, "The people's reaction to that issue - call it the gag order - ranges from frightened resignation to indifference to absolute incredulity. "I don't think, overall, anybody was completely aware of its existence and impact when they signed it."
Residents say they are afraid that challenging the provision could bring on a lawsuit - and large legal bills.
The issue arose in August, after five Avalon residents attended a hearing to oppose the developer's request for a zoning variance to allow him to build additional courtyard condominiums where townhouses had been planned.
Among those at an Aug. 23 hearing to oppose the request - which in the end was granted - was Avalon Courtyard Homes resident Audley Diamond.
Accused of violation
Within a few weeks, Diamond received a letter from lawyers representing Questar and its affiliated companies accusing him of breaching his sales contract - and saying the companies "reserve the right to exercise any and all remedies available to them. ... "