Glen Burnie gets suspended sentence in house-permit case

Arundel officials made an example out man for violating rules for new construction

January 24, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

An Anne Arundel County judge yesterday sentenced a Glen Burnie man to six months in jail - all of it suspended - for ignoring one of five orders to stop building an addition to his house.

County officials said the pursuit of Garret E. Berge, 57, demonstrates Anne Arundel's resolve to go after those who violate rules for new construction. Yesterday's court ruling follows several well-publicized cases in which property owners have built new structures without county approval.

"We have a lot of unpermitted construction, and we are determined to stop that," said David A. Plymyer, an assistant county attorney. "The perception in the public is that the way to proceed is to build first and get permission later."

Reached at home last night, Berge declined to comment.

His attorney, Rex S. Caldwell III, said Berge wants to work with the county to complete the project and will apply for variances and other county approvals, if needed.

Berge continued work after the initial county order to "stabilize the area" and protect what work had begun, Caldwell said. Berge acted out of necessity and based on his "non-familiarity of the rules and regulations," the attorney said, and not out of defiance.

"My client wasn't looking to be a test case," Caldwell said. "He wasn't challenging the authority of Anne Arundel County."

Berge pleaded guilty in District Court in Annapolis to ignoring an initial stop-work order on Nov. 8, 2005, for his home in the 7700 block of Locust Grove Road.

Judge Megan B. Johnson, after imposing the suspended six-month jail sentence, placed Berge on one year of unsupervised probation.

County officials argued that an addition built on Berge's property, located in a critical watershed area, went beyond the scope of a permit issued to him and his wife, Kathryn, to replace a 10-foot-by-16-foot enclosed porch damaged by Tropical Storm Isabel. A county inspector first ordered Berge to stop construction after discovering plans to build a 12-by-24 foot addition, complete with a basement, county officials said.

Four more inspections last year - one in March, two in August and one in October - revealed that Berge continued work, according to a news release from County Executive John R. Leopold. Berge told a county inspector in March that he would not shut down the project, the news release said.

County officials acknowledge that two high-profile cases involving homes built without permits - by car dealer Scott Donahoo and homebuilder Daryl C. Wagner - have raised concerns about the apparent flouting of land-use laws.

The county began taking a more aggressive stance two years ago against "critical area" violators, officials said. The critical area encompasses all land within a 1,000 feet of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Since succeeding Democrat Janet S. Owens last month, Leopold has taken a forceful tone on land-use violators. He voiced support for a county lawsuit to force Wagner's palatial home on Little Dobbins Island to be torn down, even after the Board of Appeals last month approved retroactive variances for Wagner.

Anne Arundel officials said they would ask a judge to order Donahoo to demolish the cottage he illegally built for his mother in Pasadena.

Betty Dixon, the county director of inspections and permits, noted that four permit violators have been referred to the Office of Law for review in the past three weeks.

"If there's a perception that it's not as easy to get away with this as it seems ... my hope is that we'll see fewer violations," Plymyer said.

Dixon said the pursuit of Berge demonstrates the county's resolve to pursue violators: "Having a successful day in court really energizes the inspectors to follow through on the cases they have."

The county is pursuing a separate civil lawsuit against Berge to tear down the addition if he cannot obtain the necessary permits. Anne Arundel officials said Berge would need a zoning variance.

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