No one is on the fence in Crofton squabble

Woman says barrier is to protect her son

covenant battle erupts

January 01, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Maybe in poet Robert Frost's neighborhood, good fences made good neighbors.

But not in Crofton.

Community covenants forbid them in front yards, and one homeowner is making a federal case over her right to have one.

Beate Kanamine says she needs the fence to protect her 6-year-old disabled son and has filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development alleging discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.

The Crofton Civic Association's board of directors says she doesn't need the fence and plans to take her to court if she won't remove it.

Almost every neighbor has come down on one side or the other, and some wonder how deeply the divide will slice through this triangle of lookalike homes in western Anne Arundel County.

The drama that has unfolded since Kanamine put up the disputed wooden picket fence in August includes allegations of harassment, vandalism and surreptitious photography, followed by tears, gossip and hostility. At times, it has appeared to pit husbands against wives. The local weekly, the Crofton Crier, simply calls it "the fence."

Sitting in her kitchen, neighbor Alicia Lobo says, "The thing about the fence isn't the fence."

As she implies, the stakes are far higher. At issue is a neighborhood's expectation that covenants protecting sameness will endure and that exceptions will be made only after rigorous review.

The polarizing question in Crofton is whether the fence is a reasonable accommodation for a disabled child or a woman's way of getting something the rules say she can't have.

The community that is so riled about this fence was once enclosed by one. Founded in 1962 as a private community, Crofton - which derives from croft, an enclosed field - was once gated on all sides. After dark, a watchman stopped cars lacking required country club membership sticker. Early residents acknowledge that it was a segregated town, which Crofton founder W. Hamilton Crawford, who died in 1993, didn't apologize for.

"We were dealing with the times that existed," he told the Evening Sun in 1983. "We decided to put up the gates at a time when there were various racial problems ... to give people what they wanted."

A few years later, the gates opened and Crofton became a special benefits tax district with a police force and a governing body, the Crofton Civic Association.

In the town of 10,000, with its townhouses and cul-de-sacs, neighbors are pleasant and the lawns appear to have just been mowed.

"It was what I had pictured to be the town I would want to live in," said Audrey Slein, whose family lives in The Willows, a subdivision near the Kanamines.

The uniformity in The Willows results from a half-inch-thick set of covenants, which outlines limits for home alterations and prohibits front-yard fences.

Kanamine says she didn't pay much attention to the covenants when she bought the house in 1999, and though some neighbors weren't happy about the themed lawn ornaments lining her walkway - snowmen in winter and a regiment of toy soldiers for July Fourth - her first year in the neighborhood was relatively quiet.

The first hint of trouble was in April, when signs proclaimed the street a "Deaf Child Area," at Kanamine's request, so that drivers would slow for her son. Some neighbors, though pleased with the deterrent to speeding, say they were confused because the boy didn't seem to be deaf.

Exception to ban sought

Also in April, Kanamine wrote to the civic association's covenant review committee asking for an exception to the ban on front-yard fences so that she could build one to keep her son, David Christopher, from running to the playground across the street.

The committee referred the matter to the association's board. When Kanamine addressed members in August, she says, they were "extremely sympathetic." They didn't rule on her request, but she prepared to build the fence citing a clause in the covenants saying that if the review committee doesn't act on a plan within 60 days, the plan is automatically approved.

"I wasn't just ignoring the covenants. But I was running out of time," she says. "The wood [for the fence] was lying in my driveway."

To rally neighbors' support, she circulated a petition. Liam Slein was one of several husbands who signed her petition and the anti-fence petition of B.J. Loftis 13 days later. Audrey Slein, one of many wives opposing the fence, says Kanamine did not make it clear to Liam Slein that the fence would be in the front yard.

Kanamine's husband's silence on the issue has led some to question his support of the fence. But David Kanamine says he stands by his wife. He calls the debate "petty," especially because his wife wants the fence to stand only for a few years, while their son is young.

Kanamine's attorney, Harrison Wetherill, calls the covenants "complex and ambiguous" and says Kanamine put the fence up "in good faith."

Richard Trunnell, president of the civic association, says the covenants are unambiguous and that Kanamine acted "in bad faith."

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