From sheds to satellite dishes, covenants have Crofton covered Association files suit to require removal of basketball hoop

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The language is there for all to see: Article VI, Section 7 of the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions for Crofton Orchards, recorded in county land records in Liber 4214, Page 96.

"No antennas, aerials, poles or towers shall be erected on a dwelling lot unless approval therefor is obtained in the manner set forth in Article V.

"This shall include, but not be limited to, television, radio and satellite reception apparatus, but shall not include basketball goals (if not in the front yard), flag poles (freestanding or mounted on the dwelling) or small bird houses or feeders."

What this all means is that Domenic and Linda Greco can't have a basketball hoop in their driveway.

But the couple put one up anyway, and twice the Crofton Civic Association warned them to take it down. Finally, community leaders sued.

Because the Grecos refused to comply, the suit says, "all other owners of lots in Crofton Orchard have suffered, and continue to suffer, immediate, substantial and irreparable harm for which there is no adequate remedy at law."

The Grecos, faced with a costly court fight and a case they didn't think they could win, gave in. It took Domenic Greco four hours to dismantle the hoop and remove the concrete that held up the pole.

* The fight to get the basketball hoop removed cost Crofton taxpayers $1,056. And it left the Grecos, who moved to their $225,000 home from New Carrollton two years ago, wondering why neighbors in their new community can't seem to get along. They put the hoop up for their three children, and said even the children of complaining neighbors used the court.

VJ "I think it's silly," said Angela Greco, "but that's covenant rules. I

just want to know why everyone didn't like it. Was it the way it looks or was it because it drew a crowd?"

By putting up a basketball hoop, they became players in a controversy that has brought neighbors in this 65-home subdivision to loggerheads and swamped the civic association with petitions and complaints about its enforcement of covenant violations.

"Enforcement depends a lot on the attitude of the residents," said Town Manager Jordan Harding, who has actively gone after violators. "Many people want every little thing enforced. There are others who don't really care, as long as the guy next door doesn't raise chickens."

"Most people want the covenants to be enforced," said Ed Dosek, president of the Crofton Civic Association. "Most fix their violations voluntarily. There are only a few that don't. That's not unlike anything else. If you've got 100 kids in a class, there will be five or six cut-ups."

Covenants, designed to keep communities uniform and maintain aesthetic standards, are legally binding agreements that can regulate everything from the color a front door can be painted to how high firewood can be stacked in the backyard.

In Crofton Orchards, for instance, covenants prohibit basketball

hoops in the front yard, forbid homeowners from erecting antennaes or satellite dishes and bar the construction of storage sheds.

Covenants are private contracts entered into when the homeowner signs the deed. They are enforced by the civic association, which has the burden of proving a violation exists and which must have a complaining homeowner who lives nearby sign a complaint.

This accounts for a major enforcement problem: Neighbors don't always want to turn in their neighbors.

"The guy says, 'Jordan, my neighbor has a playpen in his backyard,' " Harding said. " 'Don't use my name, because he's my neighbor and we drink beer together.' "

Harding had covenant enforcement high on his list when he became town manager over a year ago. Since then, he has investigated everything from fences a few inches too high to a "virtual animal farm" at a house. Unregistered cars and messy or debris-strewn lawns are more common complaints.

Since Harding has come on board, Crofton has nearly doubled the amount of money it spends on legal expenses -- most of it earmarked for covenant enforcement -- and hired a well-known Anglican priest from Annapolis to patrol the streets looking for violators.

* With at least four alleged violations in their community, 35 Crofton Orchards homeowners petitioned the civic association in October to do something. The petition listed the four complaints, which included two sheds, the Grecos' basketball hoop and a satellite dish "dressed as a deck umbrella."

Two of the complaints are under review by Crofton's attorney. One of the sheds -- in reality, a playpen -- was taken down by its owners.

The petition was brought to the board by Jack Zwirn, who lives two doors from the Grecos and is a candidate for secretary in Crofton's upcoming election.

"Any report to the CCA . . . should trigger commencement of the enforcement process without regard to the personalities involved," the petition says. "No preferential treatment is permitted. No exceptions are justified. . . . Covenants, unless rigidly enforced, will be worthless and homeowner's rights consequently diminished."

Ronald Procino, a friend of Zwirn's who lives next to the Grecos and helped gather signatures for the petition, said Crofton should crack down harder on violators.

"We pay taxes to the CCA to enforce the covenants and we expect them to do that," he said. "I do not think that is an unreasonable expectation."

The Grecos' basketball hoop, he said, is "a violation. You can't enforce selectively. I don't care to see a basketball hoop and kids playing. I think they should play in their backyard. I find it objectionable in the front."

Angela Greco said she can see how the hoop might be a distraction. She acknowledged the couple ignored violation notices warning them to take it down. But she didn't think they would get sued.

"What makes me mad is that when so many people saw my husband working on the hoop, why didn't they come out and tell him, 'It's against the covenants?' " she asked. "Why do they sit there while you're doing it and then go gripe about it? They go behind your back to be nasty."

The same night the petition was submitted to the civic association, Oct. 14, the board hired the Rev. Peter Caputo to patrol the streets of Crofton, mediate disputes and investigate complaints.

The part-time position paying $2,376 a year was eliminated for the fiscal 1993 budget due to hard economic times. But the board did find enough money to budget $14,000 for legal fees next year, almost double the 1992 figure.

* Not all Crofton Orchards residents agree with the way the board handling complaints.

David Wisyanski, who lives in the 1700 block of Peartree Lane, and two of his neighbors signed a letter asking Crofton to slow down and examine its enforcement techniques.

"We should have negotiations rather than lawsuits," he said in an interview. "People seized with the idea of purchasing a new home, they really don't read those covenants until the day of reckoning. One neighbor against another neighbor, and you've got a community divided. That's no way to live.

"I think we got too tough too fast. I believe in enforcing the rules, but we need to take a rational man approach. Some of the things have to be put in their proper perspective."

Wisyanski said hiring a covenant enforcement officer went too far. "That's like hiring a private detective to go and find out if your husband or wife is cheating on you."

Dosek agreed. "Jordan was, I think, spending too much time looking for violations. I'm not sure we ought to be snooping. We ought to urge people to report abnormalities."

Complaints that come into Town Hall are investigated by Harding, who sends out warning letters if he feels the complaint is justified. Usually, that is enough.

The homeowner can appeal to the three-member covenant review committee, which will recommend action to the board of directors. It can drop the case or order its attorney to sue in county Circuit Court.

While few cases ever go to a jury, covenant enforcement can be a lengthy and expensive process.

For three years, Crofton tried to get a man who lives on Knights Bridge Turn to stop parking his motor boat in his driveway. "He refused to cooperate." Harding said, and the community finally sued. The man finally signed a consent decree in front of a judge and moved the boat. It cost the special tax district more than $2,000 in legal fees.

VTC * Making the enforcement of covenants even more problematic is their lack of uniformity. Each community within the Crofton special tax district has its own rules. Some communities allow recreational vehicles in driveways, for instance, while others do not.

Sometimes, residents band together. Homeowners along Crofton Parkway wanted to allow basketball hoops. More than a decade ago, the civic association adopted a rule stating that that covenant wouldn't be enforced.

Legal technicalities can create disparities within communities. Thomas Rennie, who refused to be interviewed, lives in the 1700 block of Peartree Lane in Crofton Orchards. He and his wife have a basketball hoop in their driveway -- just as the Grecos did.

But the Rennies live on a corner lot; their driveway -- and basketball pole -- is on Peartree Court. Their official address is Peartree Lane. That, Crofton's attorney says, makes the hoop perfectly legal. The covenants allow basketball hoops on side or back lots. The hoop stays.

"Nobody said everything was fair," Dosek said.

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