A naturalist might love Jim and Michele Fontz's back yard. Arnold environmentalist Colby Rucker would be right at home, sloshing through the marsh and mud, looking for woodpeckers in the two big, dead trees at the back of the little lot in Pasadena.
But the Fontzes aren't naturalists. They're just a working couple from South Baltimore -- he an office dispatcher, she a data entry clerk -- who moved to the suburbs to give their kids a better life that included, among other things, a place for swing sets and a picnic table.
For the last 4 1/2 years, they lived in Pigtown with a small square of concrete for a yard. But it hardly mattered. They rarely allowed the kids out of the house because of the drug dealers milling nearby.
So the couple poured everything they had into a new three-bedroom split foyer -- white with a red door -- in the 8100 block of Hog Neck Road. It was worth the hardship of an extra $500 in monthly payments, they reasoned, to have a bigger house with a nice back yard in a nice neighborhood. But the Fontzes can't even walk through their back yard, much less set up barbecues, because it is a non-tidal wetland -- a spongy, vegetated area that absorbs floodwaters. Essentially, the Fontzes' house sits on a marsh.
Under the Maryland Non-Tidal Wetland Act, nothing should have been built on the Fontzes' property, at least not without special permission from the state. There is ample evidence that the developer, Thomas Raimond, knew that, but chose not to tell the Fontzes.
In an Oct. 24, 1990 letter, an Annapolis biologist hired by Mr. Raimond's engineers to examine the property for non-tidal wetlands said he found none. However, he added, the site "is receiving a substantial amount of storm water from off-site sources. Unless corrections are made, [your] property will continue to be flooded."
Then, on March 4, 1991, before the Fontzes say they met Mr. Raimond, a state inspector from the Department of Natural Resources driving along Hog Neck Road saw builders working among the cattails. Two days later, the state cited Mr. Raimond for violating the Non-Tidal Wetland Act, and ordered him to stop work and repair damages within 30 days. The order was ignored, and the house was built.
Mr. Raimond, who has refused to talk to reporters, is not the only one who made mistakes. Although the stop-work order remains in effect even now, the DNR never bothered to see to it that its order was obeyed.
The county Department of Inspections and Permits doesn't look good either. It issued a use and occupancy permit the day the Fontzes settled, Oct. 31, 1991. The county says it doesn't know when the state issues a stop-work order unless the state tells them. And the state says it has no mechanism for informing the counties.
The role of the real estate agent who listed the property is somewhat hazy. Did the agent know about the stop-work order and not tell the Fontzes?
Regardless of how the blame should be divided, this much is clear: the Fontzes were cheated.
They looked at other houses before they found the one on Hog Neck Road. Though it was not finished when they first saw it, Mr. Fontz liked the layout; it was so much bigger than what they had in Baltimore. And it had a back yard, which was the one thing above all that they wanted. True, it was overgrown with dense vegetation when they saw it, but Mr. Raimond promised to clear it away, they say.
They signed a purchase agreement to buy the house for $105,000, contingent on the sale of their rowhouse, on Sept. 14, 1991. Mr. Raimond himself bought the rowhouse the next day.
Under the terms of their contract, Mr. Raimond was supposed to clear their back yard within 30 days of settlement. But the property was not bulldozed until two months ago. That was when they first noticed water pooling in the yard.
One of the first things the Fontzes did was call Residential Warranty Insurance Co. of Harrisburg, Pa. to see if they could collect on the 10-year policy they thought covered their house and which is usually standard on FHA loans such as the Fontzes'. But Residential Warranty says Mr. Raimond's general contractor, the Bay State Development Corp., never took out a policy.
So here the Fontzes are, "in absolutely the same position as when we were living in the city because our children still don't have a yard," Mr. Fontz says. "Except now we have triple the house payments."
The Fontzes don't have the money to fill in the back yard, even if the state would permit it. Mr. Fontz says he's visited several several lawyers, all of whom tell him he has a case. "But they all want $1,500 or $2,000 up front, and we don't have it. All our money is tied up in the house."
So he's still looking, hoping that somewhere out there is an attorney who's willing to work for a percentage of the settlement
"We still don't understand wetlands," Jim Fontz says. "What I do know is that they're terrible."
Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.