Vienna and Dan Dietrich moved to Glen Arm and built what they thought was going to be their dream home.
Then their next-door neighbors -- upset over the appearance of the house and a zoning variance that allowed the Dietrichs to build it closer to their property -- put up nearly 200 "No trespassing" signs spaced every few feet along the property line, erected fences and, most recently, placed video cameras in the woods behind the couple's house.
Now, the Dietrichs say, their suburban dream has become a nightmare. They are embroiled in an intense neighborhood feud, one at odds with the quiet lifestyle common in semi-rural parts of the Baltimore area.
"I'm being watched 24 hours a day," said Vienna Dietrich, 39, a manager of a printing company. "And no one can do anything about it. It's scary."
Dietrich's claims are disputed by her neighbors, who said through a spokesman that they're counting deer, not spying. And the neighbors have accused the Dietrichs of damaging their property.
Neighbors and Baltimore County officials familiar with the situation said these allegations are the latest in a long-running neighborhood dispute. The problems have escalated to the point that police have been called.
"It started out as technical zoning thing," said Stanley M. Pollack, who was president of the Summerfield Farms neighborhood association when the Dietrichs bought their property near Loch Raven Reservoir. "It's ended up being a personal thing. It gets increasingly bitter."
Police are investigating the situation, which includes allegations that the Dietrichs shot two of the four cameras placed by their neighbors, Dudley C. Brownell and Elizabeth K. Brownell. Dudley Brownell has also accused Dan Dietrich of threatening him and his wife, according to police reports.
County officials said they cannot demand removal of the video equipment unless it is focused on the Dietrichs' bedroom, bathroom or dressing room. They can't order the Dietrichs' neighbors to take down the three fences -- waist-high chain-link fencing, bright-orange netting behind it and chicken wire that is draped among the trees -- or any of the "No trespassing" signs.
"They can put as many `No trespassing' signs up as they want. They can have a thousand," said LaVette Street, a county zoning inspector. "They're considered a personal message, and so long as they're not commercial signs or bigger than eight square feet, they're fine."
If the fencing isn't taller than 42 inches or on the front lawn, it doesn't violate the county's zoning regulations, Street said. Nothing regulating video cameras is written in the county code, she said.
Cameras in dispute
The Dietrichs had hoped to screen some of their neighbors' fence and signs with trees they planted recently. But guarding against the alleged video monitoring is more difficult.
Surveillance laws forbid someone from conducting visual surveillance of a person in a private place -- defined as a bedroom, restroom or dressing room -- without his or her permission, said Officer Shawn Vinson, a county police spokesman. If the cameras are recording sound, then they also would fall under the state's wiretapping laws, making them illegal, he said.
The Brownells' property abuts the Dietrichs' property on two sides.
A woman identifying herself as Mrs. Brownell on the telephone referred questions to a family friend, Calvin Hall.
"I can 100 percent guarantee you that these people aren't watching their neighbors," Hall said. "They're doing deer counts. The cameras aren't on the neighbor's house -- they're on the fencing and the stream."
Hall said he didn't know when the cameras had been installed or whether they would be removed at some point in the deer-counting process. He said that if the Brownells count a certain number of deer living on their property, it will help them preserve the area. "The Brownells are very much into nature, ecology, and the preservation of land and animals," said Hall in a telephone interview.
Videotaping deer probably is not the most effective way to count them, wildlife experts say.
Maryland's Department of Natural Resources uses infrared aerial cameras, which detect heat from the animals' bodies, to determine deer populations at night in suburban areas, said Heather Lynch, a department spokeswoman. In most areas, the department estimates the population from a model based on the harvest of deer from hunters, she said.
Lynch said she doesn't think video cameras will offer the most accurate count of the deer, because the same deer could be counted again and again. Furthermore, she said, the department doesn't consider the number of deer to be a factor in determining whether a property is eligible for a preservation easement.