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Baltimore County flushes resident's request for bathroom addition

Laws and LegislationJustice SystemArchitectureElections

A Rodgers Forge resident's quest for a toilet on her first floor went down the drain June 30 when a Baltimore County administrative law judge denied her the zoning variance she would need to expand and enclose her back porch to accommodate a powder room.

Administrative law judge Lawrence Stahl presided over the June 17 hearing when Christiane Rothbaum, who has owned and lived in the end-of-group house at 300 Hopkins Road in the Forge since 1987, sought relief from setback requirements.

Rothbaum produced a letter from her doctor stating that she was suffering from medical condition, and "since she was advancing in years would greatly benefit from a powder room on her first floor."

The only practical place for it, she said, was in what is now her kitchen, in a space taken up by her refrigerator. In order to relocate the refrigerator and add cabinets, she wanted to extend the kitchen in a space she would build measuring 8 foot 6 inches by 8 foot 6 inches.

The problem is the new enclosure would extend her back porch 15 feet farther into her yard than setback regulations allow, and 4 feet closer to the side street than regulations allow.

She needed the variance to overcome those requirements.

Absent the variance, construction of the powder room would destroy the functionality of the kitchen, she said.

In his order rejecting the request, Stahl nevertheless noted that a number of neighbors testified on her behalf.

"All agreed that the petitioner took magnificent care of her home, and that it was a credit to the community," he said. "All believed that, given her medical situation, she should be granted the variance," and that numerous properties in the Forge have the extension she would like to construct.

But Rothbaum encountered opposition from the Rodgers Forge Community Association. Association president Jennifer Helfrich maintained in a letter that an extension could lower surrounding property values.

Stahl noted that Jean Duvall, a member of the association's architectural committee, contended that new extensions would adversely affect light and air in the tightly packed community of town homes, and be harmful to the quality of life enjoyed by residents.

She asserted that the property was not unique in relation to the surrounding area and that a powder room could be constructed in the home without the need for an extension.

David Lampton, member of the architectural committee and an attorney who helped coordinate the testimony of association representatives and other residents opposed to the variance, said its approval could begin a "slippery slope" that would adversely effect the quality of life in the Forge over the long term.

"On its face, this matter appears to be a complicated one, balancing the understandably logical request of a homeowner to understandably alter her home in response to a pressing personal medical need," wrote Stahl in his ruling.

"It's clear from all the testimony that the petitioner is an admirable homeowner and that her care for her home stands as an example and credit to the Rogers Forge community," he wrote.

But the law requires that variances be granted "only in cases where special circumstances or conditions exist that are peculiar to the land or structure ... and where strict compliance with the zoning regulations for Baltimore County would result in practical difficulty or unreasonable hardship," Stahl said in his ruling.

That "uniqueness" has to be established before hardship is even considered, he said.

"The bar as to 'uniqueness' is purposely raised high and the petitioner has not succeeded in reaching it," he wrote. "The properties in Rogers Forge are relatively uniform; that uniformity provides much of the character and attraction of the community."

He therefore denied the request.

Rothbaum's lawyer, Frank Borgerding, said Thursday that he needed to review Stahl's order before talking to his client about it and asking if she wants to file an appeal. Rothbaum has 30 days to take action.

Speaking on his own behalf, Lampton said he was pleased by the ruling.

"Our back yards are tiny as they are," he said. "What you don't want is people building back into them. It could make the yards of adjoining neighbors claustrophobic.

"I believe the architectural standards should be upheld."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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