A new push to keep up on upkeep

As Columbia ages, association tries to maintain standards

July 17, 2000|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

David Swann will need one heck of a lawn mower if he ever decides to cut the knee-high grass and 6-foot weeds around his Columbia home.

Until then, he'll need a good lawyer.

Swann - who says he has not cut his lawn in more than a year to protest a home-construction project behind his house - is one of six residents the Columbia Association is suing over alleged covenant violations.

Problems at the other five homes aren't so visible to passers-by, but officials say they violate Columbia's strict architectural guidelines: missing front lights, vent covers and screens; broken downspouts; rotting window frames; and clogged gutters.

"The more you maintain something, the less likely it is to deteriorate to the point where it truly becomes an eyesore and begins to detract from the whole neighborhood," said Maggie Brown, the association's vice president of community services and chairwoman of its Architectural Resource Committee.

"That's what everybody believes and strives for in Columbia, to keep those property values up and to keep their neighborhood aesthetically pleasing," she said.

The lawsuits filed in Howard County Circuit Court come at a time when the Columbia Association, determined to have the community age gracefully, is looking for ways to crack down on homeowners whose property is falling into disrepair. From sending inspectors into the streets to barring covenant violators from community pools, Columbia is taking new steps to whip its older neighborhoods into shape.

Columbia's architectural covenants regulate everything from house colors to basketball hoops. Residents are supposed to obtain permission from their village architectural committee before making any changes to the exterior of their property, including landscaping.

Until now, it has taken a complaint from someone in the community to prompt an investigation. But under a $35,000 pilot program that is scheduled to begin today, inspectors will patrol Harper's Choice, Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake in search of problems.

The program's three part-time inspectors - known as "property standards evaluators" - will be on the lookout for maintenance problems, not illicit lawn ornaments, said Erin Peacock, village manager for Oakland Mills. Village covenant advisers will, however, continue to investigate complaints of other, nonmaintenance violations.

"It's more than what we've been doing, but it's a far cry from instituting covenant police," Peacock said.

Another strategy is intended to strike at the heart of this recreation-oriented community: denying covenant violators access to association pools and health clubs. That has been the policy in Columbia since 1997, but it has not been enforced because of confusion over how to implement it.

Within a month or two, the association is expected to provide pool and health club staff members with the means to check their members' violation records, Brown said.

Only as a last resort, Brown said, does Columbia take covenant matters to court. The association files about 20 cases a year against homeowners, she said.

Each of Columbia's 10 villages investigates 50 to 200 complaints a year, Brown said. If village covenant advisers cannot persuade homeowners to resolve the problems, they refer the matters to the Architectural Resource Committee. If the committee determines that the homeowner is in violation, it may recommend that the Columbia Association president pursue legal action. The president has the final say on whether to sue, Brown said.

The six homeowners who were sued June 26 did not respond to several warnings about covenant violations, the suits say.

One of the suits says the owner of a Faulkner Ridge Circle townhouse has refused to repaint it, clean its gutters and replace rotting siding and window frames. Another alleges that a resident on East Wind Way has failed to repair the window and trim on her front door, replace a missing outdoor light, cover the vents on the back of her house and fix a broken downspout.

The suits ask the court to order residents to comply with covenants and pay the association's attorneys fees. With the exception of Swann, the resident who has quit mowing his yard, the homeowners either declined to comment or could not be reached. Swann makes no apologies for bucking covenants requiring that his Flowertuft Court lawn be kept tidy. The retired computer scientist said he is protesting a home-building project behind his single-family house that he said has dragged on for years.

Officials say the project has no bearing on Swann's yard. Swann said he will take the mower out of mothballs once the work on his neighbor's house is completed.

"I happen to support the covenants," Swann said. "You have the house built, you won't have a problem with me."

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