Caught in Columbia's grasp

Assessment: Five families along Donleigh Drive in Columbia want out of a lien they say is `taxation without representation.'

October 06, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Five families who live along Donleigh Drive, off U.S. 29 in Columbia, can appreciate the anger of Americans who dumped British tea into Boston harbor in 1773.

Every year, they pay thousands of dollars in lien assessments on their homes to the Columbia Association. But legally, they do not live in Columbia. They cannot vote in village elections, no village represents them and Columbia's architectural covenants do not govern them.

That's fine with the homeowners. They are not looking to start a revolution. They just want to stop paying the assessment, which is 73 cents per $100 of the home's assessed value.

"It's taxation without representation," said Harry Marquart, a Donleigh resident who has been paying the lien since he bought his land in 1975.

The trouble on Donleigh began in the 1960s when Howard Research and Development Corp., a Rouse affiliate, bought the sliver of land on which the houses sit. But when HRD sold the lots in 1968 and 1969 to be developed, Kings Contrivance - the closest Columbia village - did not exist. (The village was not incorporated until 1977).

By the time Kings Contrivance was created, HRD no longer owned the property. So it was never annexed to a village. But the Columbia assessment went with the land from the time it was owned by Rouse. Now, the homeowners are stuck with the homeowners association lien and living in an exile island of Columbia, while the rest of the Donleigh neighborhood, which also is not legally part of Columbia, is not subject to the dues.

The Donleigh homeowners are not alone in their plight.

A handful of houses on two other parcels near Kings Contrivance - on Old Columbia Road and Broadcloth Way - are in the same situation, said Anne Dodd, Kings Contrivance village manager.

"If I were one of those homeowners, I would be distressed about it, too," Dodd said. "However, it is the condition under which they bought their homes."

Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown said last week that she was not aware of the problem in Donleigh. But she noted that a few parcels or streets have popped up through the years that have not been connected to a village but have been required to pay the assessment.

In such instances, Brown said, the pieces of land sometimes become part of a village if the residents are willing. Brown said she would hold a meeting with her staff next week to look into the situation at Donleigh.

"It's not like it's a really, really common thing," she said. "But you can imagine there are small parcels or streets where this has occurred during the long 35 years of history [of Columbia]."

The Donleigh residents adamantly do not want to become part of Kings Contrivance - they would rather get out of the lien entirely. Nor do they wish to be subjected to Columbia's architectural covenants, which govern home exterior appearances, ranging from house color to tree removal

"Good Lord, no," said resident John Seyle, adding that if he had any problems with appearances of neighbors' homes, he would "rather go straight to the county. I don't need the Columbia Association, I'm a big boy."

Resident Thomas Jones agreed: "If I want to paint my house any color I want to paint it, as long as my neighbors don't object, I want to be able to do it."

Gary Knott has taken the lead in a painfully long effort to get himself and the other homeowners out of the lien, or at least get their money's worth.

When he moved to the Donleigh neighborhood in 1977, Knott assumed the whole neighborhood was in Kings Contrivance. But when he started talking to neighbors about voting in an election for Kings Contrivance - where residents would elect a representative to the 10-member Columbia Council - neighbors told him they do not live in the village.

Knott tried to vote anyway in 1981. But he was told by HRD that although he and his neighbors are subject to the lien, they are not covered under Kings Contrivance covenants. Bottom line - they cannot vote.

In 1998, Knott pleaded his case to the Howard County Planning Board before the land was officially zoned for new town single-family homes. Knott asked that the parcel receive services like the rest of Columbia, including tot lots and bike paths.

Nothing's changed

Despite Knott's efforts, nothing has changed.

And as the residents fulfill their annual obligation to turn money over to CA, some of them are left wondering how they wound up in the situation. Most claim they didn't understand what they were getting themselves into when the moved to their new homes.

"How can it possibly be that these five houses need the assessment and the others in this little area don't?" resident Larry Wall said.

Jones said he didn't give it much thought when he was told that there was an additional fee assigned to the property before he moved to the neighborhood in 1986.

"I guess at the time we moved in, I was naive, and it wasn't a big deal," he said.

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