Fence tests durability of homeowner covenants

Final settlement remains in question


May 24, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

In the beginning, the story seemed straightforward enough: a mother, worried about her hearing-impaired son running into the street, fenced in her front yard to protect him.

But because it is Crofton's only front-yard fence - built in violation of community rules - the tale has more twists and turns than the cul-de-sac neighborhood where the drama lingers, despite a supposed settlement. Tears have been shed, nasty glances exchanged, Christmas lights cut - all linked to tension the fence has wrought.

Even after both sides announced a settlement, the case remains unresolved. After a year of fighting, no one is sure who won.

To outsiders, the vitriol might seem like much ado about lawn ornaments. But to many residents, the issue has centered on their right to buy into a neighborhood with a set of rules they agree to live by - and expect their neighbors to agree as well. Crofton's covenants are as much a part of the community as its country club or its village green.

Covenants - agreements initiated by developers and enforced by homeowners associations - keep lawns neatly mowed and boats out of driveways. The Crofton front-yard fence case tests the rigidity and strength of those rules.

It pits a mother who says she needs an accommodation for a disabled child against a homeowners association's unwillingness to bend the rules. State and federal agencies have weighed in, thousands of dollars have been spent on attorneys' fees, scathing words have been splashed across local editorial pages.

Some neighbors think the winner is Beate Kanamine, the woman who built the fence without permission. Under a settlement announced May 8, she could keep up the offending fence until October 2002. In exchange, Kanamine had said she would drop the discrimination complaint she filed with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development alleging discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.

But Kanamine changed her mind last week when the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, investigating on behalf of HUD, issued a finding of probable cause that discrimination occurred. Though the commission's investigators based their finding largely on Kanamine's account of events and one visit to the property, Kanamine says she was vindicated and will push ahead with the case.

"Now, I don't have to give in as much as they have to make concessions," Kanamine said of the Crofton Civic Association. "Really, they have not made any concessions at all."

Public records show the civic association devoted hours of time - and endured plenty of criticism - as it navigated the thorny issue.

In an interview before the settlement announcement, Richard Trunnell, president of the civil association, acknowledged that the fence case wasn't always a comfortable one. It cost the association much of the $6,000 it had budgeted this year for covenant enforcement, and could cost more if Kanamine pushes on.

But Trunnell doesn't consider the settlement a victory for Kanamine.

"It shows that we will look at an issue fairly, we will decide on merit, and we will do the right thing, whether it's politically comfortable or not," he said.

Many are watching the fence case unfold because covenants have become so common.

"Most modern subdivisions have covenants of some type and, nowadays, they tend to be much more sophisticated," said Anthony F. Christhils, a longtime land-use attorney in Anne Arundel County. "They're intended to ensure a certain uniformity."

That uniformity has attracted millions of homeowners. In 1970, 1 percent of housing units nationwide were part of a homeowners association. By 1998, that figure had increased to 15 percent, according to Robert H. Nelson, a professor with the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs who has been studying property issues for 25 years and written several books on the subject.

Crofton is growing at a breakneck pace - its population has nearly doubled to 20,000 since the 1990 census. But the new residents are lured more by its proximity to Washington and Baltimore than its village ambiance, leaving old-timers cleaving to - and explaining - the rules that set Crofton apart.

Robert Johnston, a 10-year resident and associate broker with Long & Foster Realtors, is used to the awe as house-seekers circle Crofton Parkway.

"People are very impressed with the look," Johnston said. "I tell them we have covenants here, and generally people do a pretty good job maintaining them."

Johnston said he's not sure if the Kanamine fence and subsequent settlement - valid or not - undermine the covenants. Enforcement is a slippery slope, he said. Once one home violates the rules, he said, others follow.

But Trunnell doubts that the Kanamine settlement will prompt others to violate the rules.

"No one," he said, "wants to put up a fence and then tear it down."

Covenant violations crop up every so often in Crofton, often by homeowners who didn't know they were breaking rules and quickly return to compliance when told of the infraction.

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