Neighbors' 7-year feud results in 13th criminal case

Howard `contest of wills' has drawn 100 police visits

December 06, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN REPORTER

The dispute between the neighbors started seven years ago, but no one can say precisely when it spiraled out of control.

The families have blamed their counterparts on the other side of the pine-studded property line for everything from near-miss car accidents to being followed while on errands and videotaped while doing yard work. Profanities and obscene gestures have been exchanged, as have a plethora of lawsuits and criminal complaints, requiring more than 100 visits to the street by Howard County police.

And, of course, there are the lawn chairs. Once arrayed like white plastic sentries on the border between the Cerny and Elliott family homes on Swift Current Way, a cul-de-sac in Columbia's Village of River Hill, the chairs have become a flash point of their own.

The Elliotts view the chairs, placed 30 feet from their front door in the far corner of the Cernys' property, as a provocation. One judge hearing a dispute between the families referred to the line of chairs as a monument to the neighbors' "evergreen animosity."

Tomorrow, the combatants return to court in their 13th criminal case. Timothy Cerny, 47, faces a second-degree assault charge for allegedly spitting on David Elliott, 47, during an April screaming match that Elliott caught on videotape, according to court records.

The prior 12 cases consisted of charges including harassment, failing to comply with court orders and second-degree assault. None has resulted in a conviction, and most haven't even been prosecuted.

The feud, which has involved numerous state and local agencies, has become so costly that a judge once suggested the county end it by simply buying one of their approximately $750,000 homes.

"They're the modern day Hatfields and McCoys," said Capt. Kevin A. Burnett, who supervises police in the southern half of the county and who, along with the county's police chief, was subpoenaed in one of the Cernys' lawsuits against the Elliotts.

"They'll do anything to aggravate one another," Burnett said. "I'm shocked no one has gotten up and moved. Now it's turned into a contest of wills."

Burnett has listed the Cerny and Elliott homes on a short list of "hot spots," requiring specially assigned personnel, on a white board in his office alongside village centers and public housing projects.

And after Timothy Cerny filed a complaint claiming police bruised his wrists when he was arrested on an alleged violation of a peace order - for the lawn chairs - police began sending a supervisor and patrol officer to all calls involving the Cernys or the Elliotts.

Burnett also began personally handling their complaints over the phone and ordered patrol officers to cease responding to "nuisance complaints," such as reports of one neighbor staring at the other.

Both parties have also applied for 13 peace orders - meant to stop the other from threatening or harassing the applicant - since 1999, according to court records.

All told, police have responded 63 times to the Elliott home and 41 times to the Cerny home since 1999, according to police records, which do not include complaints that were handled over the phone.

After responding to dozens of calls, the county police decided they would not send officers to the homes "unless there is an allegation of criminal behavior - assault, theft, shooting," said Burnett, whose officers have been cursed at by Timothy Cerny, according to court documents.

Nevertheless, police still regularly respond to calls - nine times this year. "You have to take it seriously because something small might set one or the other off, but at the same time, it's frustrating to respond," Burnett said.

River Hill is an unlikely setting for such rancor. It is the ninth and final of Columbia's planned communities, all crafted to promote serenity.

Swift Current Way is a small street with 11 homes and 22 children, ending in a cul-de-sac that encircles a well-groomed island.

Animosity between the two families emerged even before construction of their nearly identical, 3,352-square-foot homes was completed seven years ago.

In 1999, the Elliotts learned from the developer's sales manager that the Cernys were building their house closer to the street to make room for a possible backyard pool.

Given the tight arrangement of the lots, the Cernys' backyard is immediately in front of the Elliotts' home. The Elliotts live on a so-called "flag lot," named for its narrow entrance and wide rear, meaning that the Cernys' backyard appears to be the Elliotts' front yard.

The conflict over the proposed pool began immediately.

"He [David Elliott] says to me right off the bat, before even an introduction, `I heard a rumor about you. I heard you had your house sited for a pool. Why would you want a pool when there's one right down the street?'" said Timothy Cerny, who works as a financial adviser, often from home. "Everything I do in my backyard they object to."

The Elliotts declined to comment for this article.

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