Dispute brews in Clemens Crossing


Gregory and Dawn McBrien see rotting siding, peeling paint, deteriorating fences and other unsightly conditions they say are dragging down property values in their Clemens Crossing neighborhood.

But Clemens Crossing resident Lisa Bishop sees working people trying their best to maintain their aging homes. And she charges that the McBriens needlessly anger their neighbors by reporting them for alleged violations of Columbia's property maintenance guidelines.

The brewing dispute in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village is part of a much larger battle in the planned community over how to enforce the strict architectural guidelines -- maintenance standards for which the new town is recognized nationwide, but which many say increasingly are being ignored by residents.

Some residents want Columbia to more aggressively enforce the guidelines -- contained in covenants signed by homeowners -- to avoid a decline in the community's appeal and economy. But others argue such actions can be carried to extremes, creating a police-state mentality that accomplishes little other than upsetting homeowners.

Tensions have risen this summer in Clemens Crossing, where the McBriens compiled a laundry list of complaints from streets around their Buckstone Court home and presented it to village officials. After inspections, the village sent violation notices to about 25 residences, including the Bishops' home.

Angry residents crowded a Hickory Ridge village board meeting last month to complain, while the McBriens pleaded for action.

It isn't the first time the McBriens have tested the village's enforcement powers. Two years ago, they submitted complaints on about 60 properties roughly bounded by Martin and Freetown roads, and today they plan to meet with the village's covenant adviser, Barbara Condron, to check the status of those complaints and discuss concerns.

In July, the McBriens and several neighbors also told the Columbia Council -- which oversees the Columbia Association (CA), the new town's controlling body -- that the enforcement process is broken and the part-time covenant adviser is overwhelmed.

"Our main concern is the major maintenance items that continue to get worse with time," said Mr. McBrien, an 18-year Columbia resident. "We're concerned about things that affect property values."

The Columbia Council is concerned enough that it established TC committee to determine more effective ways to enforce guidelines. It also increased its budget for covenant enforcement from $16,000 three years ago to $93,000 this year. In just one Long Reach village court case over a satellite dish -- settled before trial last month -- the association spent $20,000.

CA, a nonprofit agency that runs the community's facilities and services, has ultimate responsibility for enforcing the guidelines. The agency becomes involved only when village associations can't resolve disputes.

In 1994, CA brought 12 cases to court, its record high for a year. This year, the association has filed four cases for such violations as shoddy lawn and home maintenance, an improperly stored vehicle and a deck that is too long and has an unapproved hot tub.

Conflicts over maintenance guidelines have erupted in other Columbia villages in recent years. Last year, the Kings Contrivance village board complained that an abandoned property was allowed to fall into disrepair, and Wilde Lake village condominium owners were angered by a request to dim their security lights.

But some residents argue that the violations cited in Clemens Crossing are nitpicking.

Mrs. Bishop called the McBriens' campaign "totally unnecessary" and "absurd." She said the McBriens and village officials are misinterpreting the intent of the covenants established by the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer.

"I could tell you things people have been cited for and you'd be amazed anybody would care," she said. "I don't see declining property values. I see an older community with 20- to 25-year-old houses that require work. I see a bunch of working people doing the best they can to keep property values up. I don't see a bunch of people sitting around saying, 'How can I let my property deteriorate?' "

An Aug. 14 notice from the village said the Bishops' violations include an askew utility meter; an unapproved air conditioning unit installed by previous owners; an unpainted strip of wood on the front door; and yard waste from hedges that were cut down.

Columbia Council and Hickory Ridge leaders say they have noticed a decline in Clemens Crossing's appearance, adding the McBriens have raised awareness.

Michael Rethman, the council's most vocal proponent of stricter covenant enforcement, said villages are doing an inadequate job. He said that the McBriens' concerns are valid, and that villages must do more than respond to complaints and approve applications for new structures to keep homebuyers and businesses interested in Columbia.

"The problem in the future will be not whether somebody wants to build a deck, but whether somebody's house is falling down," said the Hickory Ridge representative, adding that more systematic inspections for violations may be necessary.

"If we want Columbia to emerge as a desirable community five to 10 years hence, this is what we have to do."

But Ms. Condron, Hickory Ridge's covenant adviser, believes it would be inappropriate for village officials to search for violations. "We are here to serve the community, not to annoy everybody," she said.

Even determining whether violations exist often is highly subjective, said Walter G. York, one of two Hickory Ridge village board members who toured Clemens Crossing to evaluate the McBriens' complaints.

"What's a covenant violation, and what's a maintenance problem?" he said.

Mr. Rethman and Mr. York said enforcement could be improved through measures short of legal action, such as educating new homeowners, establishing a low-interest loan fund and setting up a volunteer program to help with improvements.

Such proposals don't satisfy Mr. McBrien's immediate concerns. "Homes aren't getting better, but getting worse," he said.

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