Family's fence crosses Columbia's covenants

Without permission, homeowner installs barrier for backyard privacy

September 27, 2006|By Tyrone Richardson | Tyrone Richardson,SUN REPORTER

When Derwent and Rhonda Williamson moved into their home in Long Reach six years ago, they didn't think twice about the booklet of strict architectural guidelines that regulate the outside appearance of homes in Columbia.

Now the couple find themselves involved in what they see as an increasingly contentious debate with their village architectural review committee about the 6-foot-tall privacy fence they put up - without the committee's approval - to keep residents from a group home next door from roaming through their backyard.

"I don't mean to sound bad, and I do believe you can have regulations ... but we have a drastic measure next to us, and we have to do what we have to do to take care of our family," said Rhonda Williamson, a stay-at-home parent and home-school teacher for her children, ages 6 and 4.

Long Reach officials, however, are taking a firm - if polite - stance, having rejected both designs offered by the Williamsons before the couple went ahead with the fence. That sets the stage for the village to send a letter demanding that the fence be taken down.

"You can't make everybody happy, and we have the guidelines and the committee really tries to be even-handed," Sarah Uphouse, Long Reach Village manager, said of the decision to reject the fence design.

Such clashes are not uncommon when homeowner associations looking to safeguard community aesthetics bump up against residents looking to modify their property.

"The ... intent is good - to protect the property values -and naturally, some may bristle when they run up against a guideline that runs counter to what they want to do, but that same guideline may protect a neighbor from creating an eyesore," said Frank Rathbun, spokesman for the Community Associations Institute of Alexandria, Va., which advises homeowner groups.

In the planned community of Columbia, residents are required to obtain permission from their village architectural committee before making any changes to the exterior of their property, including landscaping.

Columbia's villages vary in how they respond to those who violate the architectural covenants. Typically, enforcement starts with a letter to the resident. If the violation is not corrected, the issue could be taken to Columbia Association for sanctions that could include suspension of access to the association's pools and athletic facilities or even legal action.

Karen Hawkins, spokeswoman for the Columbia Association, said the association has a 100 percent success rate with covenant lawsuits and averages about eight legal cases each year.

To help enforce the rules in Columbia, residents are called upon to report violators, and some villages hire outside contractors to survey homes in the village, noting violations and then reporting the offenses.

Rhonda Williamson said she and her husband decided to put up a fence to insure what they felt was a needed measure of privacy from their immediate neighbors, residents of a group home for disabled adults.

The Williamsons said they knew about the group home when they moved in, but said they have been made uneasy on occasion by neighbors peering across into their property and sometimes walking into their backyard.

In April, the couple filed an application with the Long Reach Architectural Committee for a 6-foot-tall wooden fence. The panel postponed judgment to allow several inspections of the Williamson's backyard, but ultimately denied the application.

Determined to get some form of barrier approved, the Williamsons said they submitted an application for a smaller, picket fence. That request also was turned down as too close to the property line.

At the committee's request, the Williamson's placed several small evergreen trees in their backyard, which they expect to grow large enough in a few years to block out their neighbors.

But the Williamsons' said they are bitterly upset about being denied permission for a fence after they presented what they thought was a reasonable case.

"I can understand about painting your house pink and putting a huge water fountain in front of your house," said Rhonda Williamson.

"But, to have some privacy in your backyard ... is different," she said. "I thought that once [the committee] heard our situation, they would react, and really they did not."

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