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County undertaking old code clean-up


Have a problem with the neighbor?

Try this: Build part of a fence along the property line, because your neighbor will have to build the rest of it.

Says who? Howard County law, that's who.

The 1930 fence law is one of several obscure laws officials hope to remove from the 2,971-page Howard County Code during the next 18 months. Other possible changes concern indigent housing, growth management, gasoline station restrooms and animal carcass removal.

"We're trying to clean up the code," says County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

Sounds simple. But even the fence law has its supporters.

"I'd leave the law as it is now," says Ridgely Jones, an 82-year-old cattle farmer who served on the Howard County Council from 1970 to 1974. The law is useful in rare disputes between farmers and protects farmers against encroaching "suburbanites," Mr. Jones says.

Lawyer Tom Lloyd, a fence law advocate, paints the following scenario to support his position: A farmer wants to convert grain land to pasture land. But his suburbanite neighbor doesn't want a fence along the property because it would disturb his view. The farmer simply says: Let me build the fence or my lawyer here will make you pay for half of it.

"It [the fence law] is nice to have in changing farm conditions," Mr. Lloyd says.

About five years ago, Howard County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga tried unsuccessfully to change the law.

"Charlie was the only Republican, so anything he proposed got killed," recalls Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning.

From 1986 to 1990, he was outnumbered 4-to-1 by Democrats on the County Council.

The fence law states: "When the lands of any two [2] persons adjoin, each of them shall make and maintain one-half of the whole length of the line of fence between them "

Mr. Ecker says he doesn't enforce the law. If a resident tried to use the law, he says, "I would probably try to talk the guy out of it and reason with him."

Mr. Lloyd says most farmers get along with their neighbors. But, "If they don't get along, the law will make them get along," he explains.

If the fence law stays, it would continue to have little effect in Columbia. In the planned community, fencing decisions fall under architectural restrictions, known as covenants.

Other proposed changes in the Howard County code include:

* Repealing a 1985 law requiring "clean, working toilet facilities" at gasoline stations. The law is outdated, county officials say, noting that foul public bathrooms could be dealt with using public nuisance laws.

* Repealing a 1985 law that states: "A person occupying real property in Howard County shall not allow the dead carcass of a domestic animal to remain exposed on the property for more than 24 hours. The person shall bury the carcass or otherwise dispose of it."

This is outdated because the problem falls under public nuisance laws, officials say.

* Repealing an 1880 law authorizing the county executive to rent a home in Howard County "for the purposes of an infirmary for the care of the indigent sick of said county." The law was passed before more broad-based social service programs.

* Changing the title of the "Urban Renewal" section of the code to "Community Redevelopment" -- a move, a council document says, that will get rid of "negative connotations."

* Repealing a 1980 law called the "Subdivision and Land Development Regulations of Howard County."

This final proposal may draw concern from anti-growth factions in Howard County.

But Mr. Ecker says the law has been superseded by newer planning laws and no longer has any power.

"I think it's not going to change development, either pro or con," he said.

The County Council is addressing changes one by one. At a recent meeting, for example, proposals were introduced to kill the Subdivision and Land Development Regulations and the county executive indigent housing law.

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