Statute Of Limitations Saves Couple From Fees, But Columbia Association Is Appealing

December 07, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson ,

Sometimes it pays to be stubborn.

For more than 33 years, Joseph and Shirley Poteet ignored annual Columbia Association bills and later threats of possible foreclosure for not paying the community's unofficial property tax fees that accumulated to more than $45,000. Now, a Circuit Court judge has thrown out the homeowners' association claim as too old to be enforced.

But the Columbia Association is stubborn, too, and though the organization didn't sue the couple until 2008 - two years after they sold their property to a developer for $1.5 million and retired to Salisbury - the association's lawyers are appealing.

The dispute goes back to 1969, when Columbia's developer gave the Poteets their land on Waterloo Road, plus $60,000, in exchange for their old homestead in what is now Oakland Mills Village. Their new land and home was on Route 108 in Ellicott City, and they said in sworn depositions no one ever told them outright they would have to pay the homeowner association fees.

The issue was always about simple fairness for Poteet, a former metal worker with an eighth-grade education who helped fabricate parts for space probes before starting a school bus business, and his wife, a cosmetologist.

Each July, when they got the notice, the Poteets said, they would either call the association or take their two young daughters to a Columbia swimming pool. But they were always told they lived in Ellicott City, based on the address on their drivers' licenses, and couldn't come in, they said.

"My two girls would start crying" when they were told they couldn't come into the pool, Shirley Poteet recalled in the deposition. "The girls would be very upset. Their friends from school would go to the pool, but they couldn't go," she said.

They never pursued the issue with the association's higher officials, just with whoever answered the phone or was manning the pool entrance.

In court documents, Columbia Association officials said the Poteets were denied use of the facilities because they hadn't paid their annual fee.

The Poteets did not return phone calls, saying through their lawyers Andrew Radding and Jeffrey Kinstler that they won't talk until the case is resolved completely. But they spoke very clearly in the depositions they gave lawyers in April.

"I knew they said they may sell me at public auction," Joseph Poteet told a Columbia Association lawyer, but he wasn't going to pay anyway because it just didn't make any sense to him. "I lived in a cornfield," he said.

"I just thought, 'How can they possibly think we are in Columbia when we have an Ellicott City address?' " Mr. Poteet said.

"We didn't have a sidewalk. We didn't have city water and sewer," Shirley Poteet told the same lawyers. They felt they'd been tricked in the land swap with a Rouse Co. subsidiary, Howard Research and Development.

Although the papers they signed said their new home would be subject to Columbia's rules and covenants, they didn't understand that meant an annual fee, they said. They had no lawyer, and no one told them about the fees in plain English.

"We just went along with the HRD," Shirley Poteet said about the transaction.

The Columbia Association didn't begin sending annual bills until four years after the 1969 transaction. Though a county Circuit Court ruled in 1973 that the Poteets were legally liable for the fees, they still refused to pay. The association never sought a lien on their 2.7 acre parcel or filed a lawsuit to collect the money until last year.

Since the association lawsuit came 35 years after the first property fee notice, Circuit Judge Alfred L. Brennan agreed with the Poteets' lawyers in an Oct. 14 ruling that says the long-pending claim far exceeded the three-year statute of limitations.

The homeowners association has appealed the case to the Court of Special Appeals.

It isn't clear why the association is still pursuing the case, and communications director Steve Sattler said he couldn't comment on a continuing legal matter. The Columbia Association sent lien fee notices to 27,164 property owners as of July 1, Sattler said, and 99 percent paid their bills on time. Each late- or no-payment case is handled individually, he said. "We don't have any major problems with collection," he said.

The association's Washington-based lawyer, David Bamberger, argued the association should at least qualify for some of the fees, but Brennan disagreed. Bamberger did not return calls seeking comment.

"I just cannot understand why Columbia Association would have waited from '73 to '06 or whatever, to bring such an action," Brennan said during the hearing, according to a transcript.

"I find that the [three-year] statute of limitations does apply in this case, very definitely," the judge said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.