Two months after a dispute over a shared driveway left their cars fenced out of their secluded Howard County homestead, Anetta Grabowska and her husband, Rene Eppi, expect relief soon. But they're still hiking in and out.
"My backpack is my best friend. You kind of get into survival mode. You know you just have to live with it," Grabowska said as construction machines and loggers worked to transform a strip of heavy woods into a 2,000-foot driveway parallel to the one they are barred from using by a split rail fence posted with "no trespassing" signs.
The new access is expected to be ready within three weeks.
A long dispute over the one-lane, wooded drive they once shared with their neighbors, Paul and Suzanne Kneeland, resulted in the fence's construction in late July on the Kneelands' side of the property line, eliminating vehicle access to Eppi and Grabowska's home on 5.7 acres.
Since then, the couple have been walking through the woods to a neighbor's home on Brighton Dam Road in Clarksville, where they park their cars.
Both families live on multiacre wooded properties in one of Howard County's wealthiest areas, but they've spent the past 18 months in a legal battle over the 25-year-old misaligned driveway through the trees.
The Kneelands bought 15 acres next door to Eppi and Grabowska several years ago, tore down the existing home, subdivided and built two larger new houses. They sold one and live in the other.
The old crushed-stone driveway that served both properties was misaligned when it was built, according to court documents and former owners, and parts of it meandered back and forth across the property line. Everyone entering the property from Brighton Dam Road used the driveway's first leg, which is entirely on the Kneelands' land. Eppi and Grabowska's drive turned left toward their house. The fence blocks that left turn and split Eppi and Grabowska's longer portion of the drive, making it too narrow to use.
Attempts to negotiate a legal easement to solve the problem ended in a protracted court fight.
Eppi and Grabowska said they feared the Kneelands were trying to tie them to a potentially expensive legal easement agreement. The Kneelands, speaking through their attorney, James L. Mayer, contended that Eppi and Grabowska ignored their reasonable efforts to solve the legal problem, creating a bigger one for themselves.
"They spent a lot of money to take care of something they could have taken care of a long time ago. I don't have any sympathy for them," Mayer said, adding that he thinks Eppi and Grabowska caused their own predicament.
Mayer has contended that every attempt to get Eppi and Grabowska to sign an easement agreement to settle the issue failed and that the Kneelands built the fence in frustration after the other couple filed a court suit to block the fence's construction. Mayer said Eppi and Grabowska tried to manipulate the situation but failed.
Eppi and Grabowska say they've been the reasonable ones and are the victims, not the cause of the trouble. The easement agreement would have made them responsible for half the costs of maintaining the driveway, they said, without any control over the Kneelands' plans to pave it or make other improvements.
"It's really hurtful," Grabowska said.
After weeks of pushing to obtain a series of complex environmental and construction permits from federal, state and county agencies, work on their new driveway is well under way.
Grabowska said engineers' plans, surveying and government fees cost $14,000 before a shovel was turned. They hope to limit construction costs to an additional $25,000, she said. Earlier legal costs have totaled more than $47,000 during the 18-month dispute, she said.
"At this point, you just want it over with," Grabowska said. "This has taken more than a year out of our lives. It's just a driveway."