Agreement over fence dispute in question

Crofton owner insists she hasn't settled case

May 18, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

For months, the front-yard fence was the talk of Crofton as residents took sides in the battle over the simple enclosure, built in violation of community rules. Now, even the lawyers involved in settling the dispute can't agree where the case goes from here.

Last week, the Crofton Civic Association announced that it had reached a settlement with Beate Kanamine, a resident of The Willows subdivision, who erected the fence in August.

But this week, Kanamine insisted that she has not settled her case.

"Right now, my position is, I have not signed any paperwork," Kanamine said. "I'm still doubting we have a complete agreement."

Kanamine's attorney, Harrison Wetherill, confirmed last week that the case had been settled. Reached this week, he had no comment.

But Fred Sussman, the association's attorney, dismisses any notion of murkiness. After he and Wetherill issued a joint news release last week, he said, he thought the matter was closed.

"Our position is, there was a settlement agreed to, period," Sussman said. "We entered into the agreement with Mrs. Kanamine in good faith, and we intend to proceed accordingly."

But how to proceed is becoming unclear.

Kanamine's front-yard fence has distinguished itself not only because it is the only one in Crofton, but because it has brought state and federal agencies into what was a long, ugly neighborhood dispute.

When Kanamine built her fence in August, she was aware that front-yard fences violated the covenants of The Willows in west Anne Arundel County. But she hoped for an exception because she said she needed the fence to protect her hearing-impaired son, David Christopher, 6, from running into the street.

The Crofton Civic Association, which governs the community, instead contended that the fence was not a reasonable accommodation for a disabled child and demanded that she remove it.

In response, Kanamine filed a complaint with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleging discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. As investigators processed her complaint and the public debate wore on, the fence remained up, irking neighbors and eating up much of the association's $6,000 covenant-enforcement budget.

Under last week's settlement, Kanamine can keep her fence up until next year, when she will remove it at her expense. The settlement said she also agreed to drop all housing discrimination complaints.

But whether that agreement is binding is still up for debate.

HUD was never informed of the negotiations, said those familiar with the case. Neither was the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, which investigates such complaints on HUD's behalf.

Commission investigator David J. Pavanal, who is handling Kanamine's case, learned of the settlement from local newspapers last week. He had just finished a report determining "probable cause" that the CCA discriminated against Kanamine's son because of his disabilities, and he had no intention of dropping the case. He called Kanamine immediately.

"She said she did not sign any papers; she did not settle," Pavanal said.

He then sent Kanamine and her attorney a copy of his report finding probable cause. Kanamine received the report two days after the announced settlement.

Pavanal, who described himself as a "trainee" who has worked for the commission two months, based his findings on a telephone conversation with Kanamine and a site visit to her home in March. During the visit, she provided him with a report of her son's hearing disabilities.

But the investigator did not speak with anyone at the CCA about the matter; his only communication with the CCA came from Sussman in the form of a legal position statement.

Nor did he contact any of Kanamine's neighbors, who have expressed doubts at numerous public hearings about David Christopher's hearing disability. Pavanal said he had not seen photographs taken by neighbors and introduced at public meetings of the boy playing outside the fence's gates and in the street. Much of that information is public and available at Crofton's Town Hall.

Pavanal also said he did not need to verify David Christopher's hearing tests with a doctor because the report sent by Kanamine came from one.

"The child had a hearing problem. He couldn't hear oncoming traffic. Her concern was that he would run into the street," Pavanal said.

Pavanal could have gotten a second opinion, according to the commission's Handicap Discrimination Guidelines. They state: "If there is a question or dispute as to the nature of the handicap or as to the limitations of the handicapped person, another professional opinion or opinions may be necessary."

Commission officials declined to comment specifically about the Kanamine case. But Elizabeth Colette, an assistant general counsel, said that in all cases a probable cause finding is not conclusive.

"It's not a verdict, `Yes, there's been discrimination,'" she said. "It just tells you whether it's more likely than not that discrimination occurred."

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