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LANDOWNER ON ATTACK AGAINST 'HARASSMENT'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A drive by Bruce Echard's property on Defense Highway in Gambrills reveals nothing out of the ordinary: an empty field with a gate acrossthe gravel driveway and no-trespassing signs posted on roadside trees.

The long driveway leads past the field, ending in front of a two-story shack that used to be a home for chickens. Farther back is a small pump house.

Old engine parts lie scattered near a tiny pond and along a winding stream that leads out to the road -- reminders of how the propertylooked when Bruce Echard bought it three years ago.

Back then, the 38-year-old welder says, the land was a debris-strewn lot, litteredwith junked cars, buses and enough rotting tires to provide mosquitoes with their own minicountry.

Echard said he spent thousands of dollars cleaning up the 2.1 acres. But in March 1989 -- just as he wasstarting to farm the land -- a county inspector paid him a visit. Hedidn't like what he saw and told Echard to stop.

Echard was confused. He was cleaning up the land and trying to plant corn and wheat on his agriculturally zoned property, and the county tells him he's doing something wrong.

He says that one visit from the county snowballed into constant inspections, most of which found nothing wrong. But instead of letting the matter drop, the inspectors passed their findings to other agencies.

And it wasn't just the county. Soon, he was visited by state and federal government officials.

At the heartof the complaints is a neighboring homeowners association, located on a ridge about three-quarters of a mile through the woods from Echard's property.

Echard filed a $950,000 lawsuit against the Cheval Trails Homeowners Association and the county, state and federal governments, claiming the association is harassing him by filing false complaints. And he claims the government is going along by continuously sending inspectors, trespassing in the process.

Though current and past members of the homeowners association refused to be interviewed,a lawyer representing their insurance company says the group is using its legal right to bring what it feels is a bad situation to the attention of authorities.

The authorities, meanwhile, say they have little choice but to act on the complaints, even if they find nothingwrong.

"It's like two neighbors constantly fighting it out and calling the police, who keep coming out and coming out," Assistant County Attorney John Breads says. "Unfortunately, because we're one of the ones being called, we got hauled in the suit along with everyone else.

"(Cheval Trails) kept calling the county, 'You didn't find anything wrong this time, but come out again,' " Breads says. "The county is caught in the middle on something where there might not be anything wrong in the first place."

Echard says he doesn't even know how many inspections took place or how many complaints have been lodgedagainst him. He is suing four agencies and has documentation of at least three inspections, two of which identify Gary Probst, former head of the homeowners association, as the complainant.

Echard, who lives part time in Annapolis and part time in a trailer on the Gambrills property, bought the land in June 1988, from Rex Sheets for $17,000. For two years, Echard says, he labored to clean up the land, whichhe wants to turn into a Paulownia tree farm, by removing cars, transmissions, tires and even the shell of an MTA bus.

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Richard Schimel, the lawyer representing the homeowners association's insurance company, insists the continuing complaints have nothing to do with any grudge. But Echard believes otherwise, pointing to a court case over who actually owns the property.

The dispute, which ended April 3when Circuit Court Judge Robert H. Heller Jr. ruled that Echard had "absolute ownership," dates back to 1979, when the Mantaro Development Co. built Cheval Trails.

The company placed a number of acres intrust with the county as open space. Included in that property was what would become Echard's 2.1 acres. In April 1990, he hired a lawyerto fight the county, which was forced to go to court even though County Attorney Bob Pollock says it had no defense because the land wasn't surveyed properly.

Cheval Trails, Echard believes, is not happywith him or his fight to keep the property.

"These complaints, basically, were called in, I believe, by the Cheval Trails Homeowners Association to harass me," Echard testified in court, as part of his suit. "One of the inspectors for Anne Arundel County, when he was served (a summons to appear), identified my name and said, 'Oh, Mr. Echard, that's the one Cheval Trails is harassing.'

"I do not believe that it is the function of these different administrators to be engaged in a personal revenge scenario for a homeowners association."

Echard's first encounter with inspectors came in April 1989, when he received a stop-work order following a visit from Jim Thomas, of the county's grading and sediment control division.

The complaint, filedby Probst, then president of the Cheval Trails Homeowners Association, alleged Echard had set up an illegal trailer and was grading the property without a permit.

"I was puzzled," Echard says. "I didn't know if I should stop picking up garbage, because that is all I was doing. I couldn't accept the conclusion that anyone would object to what I as doing, which was cleaning the place up."

In his report, Thomas said Echard must either get a grading permit or register with the soil conservation district.

Echard says he didn't own enough land to join the conservation district and doesn't need a grading permitto farm. So he ignored the stop-work order and never heard anything more about it from the county.

But he did hear from the state. In August, he says, he met Robert Cole, an inspector with the Departmentof Natural Resources, who said there were complaints about pollutingstreams and Echard being a squatter.

Echard said Cole left, finding nothing wrong. "No violations were observed at the time of this investigation," Cole wrote in his report.

That same month, Echard said he was in his field setting up live raccoon traps when two inspectors from the Maryland Department of Environment pulled into his driveway. The inspectors, Frank Payer and Chris Westigard, questioned him on zoning issues and said they had complaints of illegal grading.

Echard said Payer and Westigard told him the complaints were called in by Probst. Echard says the two inspectors then pulled out photographs of his property, indicating they were there before.

"I was getting angry," Echard says. "I told them you should be giving awards forpeople cleaning up their property, not coming out and inspecting them."

The reports filed by Westigard indicate the inspectors were confused about the nature of the property and what, if anything was wrong. A Sept. 13 report says "the manner in which he is tending to his property is an acceptable agricultural practice," but is not a "bona fide agricultural endeavor."

Westigard also reported that county planner Richard Josephson told him "the ongoing operation is a permitted operation under (agricultural) zoning." One of the inspectors described Echard's use of the property as "extensive gardening."

The report concludes, "Writer has never dealt with a situation like this."

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Schimel says it's a simple case of the homeowners pointing out a concern to the authorities.

"They are neighbors and are concerned about activities going on on the property," he says. "They were exercising what they believed to be their right in inquiring about it. Mr. Echard seems to have a problem with that.

"Cheval Trails wasexercising its right to question his actions. They asked the people they pay taxes to to investigate what they perceived to be a problem.If there is no problem, that is fine."

Schimel says Cheval Trailsis concerned about illegal grading and development on wetlands. He denied the association has made continuous complaints or used inspectors to harass Echard.

"We didn't tell government officials how to act or what to do," he said. "All we did was ask them to look into it."

The county is taking the same position regarding Echard's lawsuit as the state and federal government: The inspectors were acting within their rights.

"Anything we did was at the request of the citizens," County Attorney Breads says. "There was no damage by county agents. I have not even met with the inspectors. I'm not even close to getting down with them to see what really happened."

A judge dismissed the federal government from Echard's lawsuit April 19. The case will stay in U.S. District Court in Baltimore while Echard appeals that decision, then go back to the county for similar motions by the state and county.

Echard clearly is frustrated. He says he just wantseveryone involved, from the inspectors to Cheval Trails, to admit heis not doing anything wrong with his property, so he can get back towork.

"It's (the issue) not going to go away," Echard says. "The homeowners association is not going to go away. I have to deal with that. I have been dealt with deceitfully in this whole thing."

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