Illegal buildings targeted

Legislation would impose fines on homes built without permits

February 18, 2007|By Phillip McGowan and Andrea F. Siegel | Phillip McGowan and Andrea F. Siegel,[Sun reporters]

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold will submit legislation Tuesday that would impose fines of $500 a day on those who live in homes built without permits.

It will be the second major step the Leopold administration is taking in a week to crack down on illegally built structures. A Baltimore car dealer struck an interim agreement with county lawyers Friday to move his 92-year-old mother out of the Pasadena cottage he had constructed without permits.

In making his case for the bill in an interview Friday, Leopold referred to the high-profile case against homebuilder Daryl C. Wagner, who built a home on an island in the Magothy River without permits and is seeking retroactive approvals. Leopold said that homes built without county approval constitute a safety hazard.

"As you saw with the Wagner fiasco, the person could continue to occupy the home even without a permit," Leopold said of the current law.

Beginning in 2003, the mother of Scott Donahoo, the car dealer, lived in her home on Rock Creek, built despite two stop-work orders, lack of permits and $1,000 in fines. After losing his case in two courts, he has moved her out and must sever the plumbing lines, complying with a Circuit Court judge's order in November, Deputy County Attorney David A. Plymyer said. By March 15, inspectors must be able to verify that the house is empty and has no septic service, Plymyer said.

In a lawsuit to force compliance, "We did target occupancy of the structure," he said.

County officials will not press Donahoo to demolish the house if he quickly moves to convert it into an unoccupied outbuilding, such as a shed or garage, Plymyer said. Donahoo is allowed by law to have that, if he can obtain the permits.

"If he doesn't proceed to fix the remainder of the problems, then we move forward to ask that the building be razed," Plymyer said.

Donahoo, who is known to television viewers through commercials for his auto dealerships, will have to fill in the basement because no basement is allowed under a shed, Plymyer said.

"That building can be brought into compliance, and that's all that I can say," said Donahoo's lawyer, Sara H. Arthur.

The interim agreement shows the two ways the county can deal with illegal structures: It goes to court to halt the construction and punish the offending homeowner. But it also allows that homeowner to belatedly seek permission for what was done.

Arthur said last month that Donahoo was caught in the "backlash of anger" against county officials who allowed Wagner's illegally built home to stay up. In 2000, Wagner obtained permits to make minor renovations to a house after buying the island, the county said. Instead, he demolished the house and built a much larger one.

The state Critical Area Commission and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are appealing a decision by the county Board of Appeals to grant Wagner several retroactive variances to keep his home and a section of driveway near his boat ramp on the 2-acre island. That December decision required Wagner to remove his sidewalks, patio, pool and gazebo.

Robert J. Fuoco, an attorney for Wagner, said he does not expect a court hearing for several months.

The county has a separate lawsuit against Wagner seeking the demolition of his island home. Leopold's predecessor, Janet S. Owens, initiated court action against Donahoo and Wagner. Leopold took office in December.

Plymyer said the Leopold administration is "more supportive" of enforcement against wayward homeowners. "We are doing a booming business in violations," Plymyer said.

Since August, the county has taken scores of court actions against homeowners for everything from yards piled with junk to homes demolished and rebuilt without permits.

Since taking office, Leopold has lifted a hiring freeze on inspectors and is pushing for a state bill to extend the statue of limitations on critical area violators from one year to three years. His administration has taken a vocal stance to thwart development within 1,000 feet of the Chesapeake Bay watershed - an area commonly referred to as the critical area.

According to the bill to be introduced to the County Council this week, an owner of an illegally built structure would be allowed to move back in only after all the necessary inspections were conducted and permits secured, along with a separate occupancy certificate.

Violators would be forced to shut down utilities at the illegally built dwelling. The bill would allow the county to disconnect water and electricity for those who did not comply.

County officials stressed that the measure would not apply to people who illegally remodeled their homes or built auxiliary features, such as a deck or a fence, without permits.

"I am looking for a comprehensive approach for cracking down on critical area violations," Leopold said.

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