Detached garage builds wall between neighbors

Family next door files complaint with Howard

permit was issued in error

September 27, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

As the walls rose for their new super-sized garage last spring, the lives of Kenneth and JoJo Montgomery fell into a tailspin.

Shocked at the size of the 40-by-46-foot, two-story garage, their next-door neighbors, David and Caroline Denzler, filed a complaint with the county. The two-decade friendship between the Highland neighbors disintegrated, and both sides blame Howard County for making things worse.

"I love these people. It's very unfortunate that it's come to this," said JoJo Montgomery, who testified at a County Council hearing that she has had doors slammed in her face and her 21-year-old son Joshua called names by neighbors who once were like family.

Caroline Denzler is equally upset.

"I spent a week sobbing over this and fighting with my husband over this," she said, because she didn't want to damage their friendship. "We watched their kids grow up," she said.

After the Denzlers' complaint, county zoning officials discovered they had issued the permit in error April 29, leading to a stop-work order July 30 that left wood walls standing exposed to the weather.

Then, after getting permission to put on a roof to prevent damage, Ken Montgomery fell off a ladder, puncturing his lung, breaking three ribs and necessitating the removal of his spleen. The Prince George's County school bus mechanic is still recovering.

Now, both sides have hired lawyers as the County Council debates a bill intended to allow the Montgomerys' $50,000 building to be completed.

Zoning rules

Before April 13, people living in rural zones could build detached garages of any size, as long as they were not larger than the house itself. On that date, new regulations took effect limiting detached garages to 800 square feet in rural areas. Under that standard, the Montgomerys' garage was too big.

Sponsored by western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman, the legislation would allow people with 2 acres or more of land in rural zones to build up to a 2,000-square-foot detached garage. It also would exempt garages applied for before April 13.

But county officials discovered late last week that the bill wouldn't cover the Montgomerys' garage, or four others the county mistakenly issued building permits for last spring. The Montgomerys got their permit April 29, and their five-car, two-story building totals 2,187 square feet on 2.1 acres.

The County Council is to discuss the situation at a work session tomorrow.

The Denzler family feels the Kittleman bill is intended to allow completion of the garage and protect the county, but not them.

"What the county is doing is just adding fuel to the family fire in order to remove any appearance of malfeasance," David Denzler said. "We can all suffer from garage lust," he said, but the building would not have been built without the mistaken county permit.

County officials said they erred because employees who approve building permits were never told of the zoning law changes. Only the Montgomerys' garage, which was approved in one day, has spawned a complaint.

"Basically, it was a mistake on our part," said county Planning Director Marsha McLaughlin.

Big project

New limits on sizes were enacted by the County Council as part of a comprehensive zoning review to prevent oversized garages from being illegally used as homes, apartments or businesses.

The Montgomerys' son, Joshua, a carpenter whose construction company is helping to build the garage, plans to use the building to house and restore old cars. One of the three bays is to have a hydraulic lift. He has a 1989 Mustang waiting in the back yard.

The Denzlers initially had no problem with the project, though it sits close to their property line, and David Denzler said he helped build the walls.

Both families said they didn't realize how massive the wall facing the Denzlers' wooded cottage would look once erected. Built on an incline, the rear foundation wall is 5 feet out of the ground, adding to the impact. The Montgomerys said they will use fill dirt and landscaping to reduce that view.

Once he saw how tall the garage was, David Denzler objected, recalling his past zoning battles over commercial incursions into a former home in Jessup near U.S. 1 in the 1970s. Their current home - which does not include a garage - faces the tallest portion of the Montgomerys' building.

The Denzlers also say they suspect the second floor was intended to be an apartment.

The Montgomerys said the second floor is for storage of tools and materials.

Blaming the county

Both families feel that the county's mistake rubbed salt in tender wounds.

"I paid $500 for the county to review these plans. We would have never gone forward. I depended on them. I paid them," JoJo Montgomery said.

The Denzlers feel similarly, especially because they've spent $15,000 for professional landscaping to try to mute the visual impact of the huge white wall that faces their driveway.

But the emotional impact of the split is what is most painful for both families.

"For 18 years, they've been like grandparents to my kids. They came over here for family outings," Ken Montgomery said.

JoJo Montgomery returned her key to the Denzlers' house and asked for her key back from them. Her children will not be mowing the Denzlers' lawn any more, she said.

"The county has mucked about with people's lives and people who have been friends a very long time aren't any more. And that's the way it is going to stay," Caroline Denzler said. "I don't have any way to fix it."

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