A plastic flamingo too far

Neighbors angry over woman's choice in yard decorations

July 12, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

On a quiet, wooded street of well-kept homes, Erin Alban's front yard is a sight to behold - but for all the wrong reasons, her Howard County neighbors said.

Stuffed animals and signs, some with religious slogans, cover virtually the entire yard, the house and the carport. Used-car-lot-style pennants run between trees.

Plastic reindeer. Smiley faces painted on the driveway. Lampshades tied to bushes. And, protruding from what had been the mailbox support, a bent plastic middle finger. Draped above it is a foot-long belt of rusted bullet shells.

"It is awful. That's what it is," said Jo Ann Norris, Alban's next-door neighbor at the dead-end of Taylor Park Road in Sykesville. "I honestly think she goes Dumpster collecting every day."

Neighbors have complained repeatedly over the past year, leading to visits by police officers, firefighters, elected officials, and representatives from several county agencies. Residents aired their objections recently at a public forum held by County Executive Ken Ulman.

But inspectors have uncovered no violations of county codes. In a county where many newer neighborhoods follow Columbia's example of controlling appearances through stringent private covenants, Alban's yard seems beyond the reach of government regulation.

"We don't do pretty," said county zoning enforcement chief George Beisser. "What's one person's junk is another person's art."

Roger Pilon, an expert on private property rights for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, says that is as it should be.

"This is one of those classic cases," Pilon said. "Aesthetic matters have not been treated by common law as subject to legislation. Once you go down that road, there's no end to it."

His advice to the neighbors?

"Lighten up."

When visited by a Sun reporter recently, Alban, 50, declined to comment about her yard other than to say "It's like the choice of car."

For the most part, neighbors can only guess what motivates Alban. She has hardly communicated with them, they say. Several once went to the house and asked to speak to her, but they were rebuffed, said Pat Arthur, who lives across the street.

Alban placed items on the lawn the day she and her teenage son moved in two years ago, neighbors said. Jackie Costello, a longtime resident, said she was puzzled to see things unloaded outside and left in the yard.

"That's odd," she remembered thinking. "When are they going to put stuff into the house?"

Though trucks hauled away large amounts of material in December, neighbors said, the collection in the yard was quickly replenished.

Ulman, who has visited the site twice since neighbors complained at the forum, said he could hardly believe his eyes.

"I was stunned that someone could treat their neighborhood that way," he said.

Ulman said he is considering whether a change in county law could help force a cleanup. But attempting to craft a law to solve one unusual problem can be a "slippery slope of how much government should be involved," he said.

County communications director Kevin Enright said the county is researching whether state nuisance laws might provide a solution. But it is not clear yet if the state standard - "a condition that is dangerous to health or safety" - would apply.

Norris said she and other neighbors worry that their homes will be worth less and harder to sell as long as Alban doesn't clean up.

"They all tell us it's private property and they can't do anything about it," Norris said. "It infuriates me. Would you want a house with somebody with a lawn like this?"

Others said it's just a matter of nuisance. Gawkers routinely come around just to see the yard and take photos.

"It is an embarrassment," said Arthur, who lives in a spotless rancher she and her husband had built in 1973. "I wouldn't have company over. The last time I did, that's all they talked about."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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