Rules for tidy community can create mess for some

Covenants: Strict architectural regulations keep Columbia looking fresh but can lead to problems when homeowners can't or won't comply.

October 21, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The split-level home in Columbia that Marie Johnson bought to escape a drug-ridden Baltimore apartment building has a sagging roof, rotting wood, a damaged chimney and trash in the yard.

The single mother works three jobs, but she said she can no longer afford to maintain her home. Her nightmare escalated in August, when the Columbia Association sued her for violating its strict architectural covenants, ordering her to make the repairs and pay legal fees.

"These people are driving us crazy. I don't know what else to do," Johnson, 48, said through tears. "I need a little help. All they're doing is making life harder for us."

Architectural covenants, which determine whether residents may install hot tubs, build fences or paint their homes certain colors, help to uphold the appearance of neighborhoods and preserve property values. But they can also be a source of conflict when homeowners want the freedom to do as they please with their houses, or if they can't afford to properly maintain them.

"It's probably the single largest area where there are disagreements between homeowners and homeowners associations," said Arnold McMahon of the American Homeowners Resource Center in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. "Homeowners need to realize before they move in what they are signing into."

Although rare, there have been violent disputes with homeowners associations across the nation. An Arizona man fatally shot two women in 2000 at an association meeting after an argument over landscaping, and an Illinois man was accused of fatally shooting a condominium board secretary in July after being evicted for owing fees.

In Columbia, which has the state's largest collection of homes that fall under such guidelines, the covenants are strictly enforced. Violations are primarily fueled by complaints, with neighbors reporting one another to the village resident architectural committee, a volunteer board that reviews covenant cases. Some villages have adopted a kind of covenant police, where an outside contractor surveys the village, taking note of any violations, and then sends notices to homeowners about the necessary repairs.

Even James W. Rouse, Columbia's founder, was busted once, when he painted the door of his new Wilde Lake home without approval. He submitted his application to the village, attaching a note that read, "My face is red because my door is yellow," said Rouse biographer Joshua Olsen.

Columbia officials say the covenants are key to the community's high quality of life.

"I think maintaining and the upkeep of one's property is essential to keeping the community looking as aesthetically pleasing as possible," said Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown.

Still, Columbia's covenants have been tested by some nonconformist homeowners who wanted the freedom to do as they please with their property. One did not cut his lawn for more than a year to protest a home-construction project behind his house. He was sued by the association. Another Columbian displayed a Confederate flag outside his home and was forced to seek approval for a flagpole -- but not the flag.

But the bottom line is that the law is on the Columbia Association's side -- it never loses. The association has a 100 percent success rate with covenant lawsuits, said Keisha Reynolds, an association spokeswoman. In the past 12 months, the association has filed eight lawsuits and collected $17,000 in legal fees that homeowners must pay, Reynolds said.

Rick LaRocca, a real estate agent with Re/Max in Columbia, said most buyers appreciate Columbia's covenants and recognize the potential benefits.

"Property values are maintained at a certain level because people are taking care of their property," he said.

Of the nation's 105 million households recorded in the 2000 census, about 17.8 million are in common-interest housing developments, according to the Community Associations Institute in Alexandria, Va. Virtually all of those have covenants and, as developers have realized, those standards can regulate nearly anything regarding homes because people voluntarily agree to the restrictions, said Evan McKenzie, a University of Illinois at Chicago political scientist who studies homeowners associations.

"That's why these covenants can be very intrusive, and that's why they cause so much conflict, because people feel like their home is not their castle," said McKenzie, author of Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government.

Johnson's situation is extreme. Most homeowners in Columbia's 96,000-resident community attend to necessary repairs long before the Columbia Association would take the last resort by filing a lawsuit. But her case raises interesting questions about Rouse's vision of Columbia as an economically diverse community, and a homeowner's responsibility to make sometimes expensive repairs to maintain a home.

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