In Columbia, get spiffy or get sued Covenants: A resident of the Howard County community can get a letter from the village board if he doesn't keep his property up to snuff and a trip to court if he fails to comply.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So you live in a Columbia house where you raised your son and put a trampoline in the back yard so he could exercise his asthmatic lungs. Besides your home and family, your other source of pride is your 1974 Corvette that you keep under a $300 custom cover in your driveway.

The home has fared pretty well in the past 21 years, but you get seasonal patches of algae on the side of the house, which you clean every summer. The trampoline has broken, and since your son is going off to college your wife decides she wants to hang plants on the rim.

Little did you know that the algae, the trampoline and the Corvette could land you in court -- even in jail -- for allegedly violating Columbia's strict aesthetic covenants.

You are James M. Stuart, 53, a befuddled and angry Columbia resident, one of several who face court action for what in most neighborhoods might be nothing more than the subject of backyard backbiting.

Stuart's problem is with the Columbia Association and the Owen Brown Village Board, which draft and enforce rules on everything from house color to lawn mowing to algae to unpainted chimneys.

All of this to keep neighborhoods attractive and property values stable.

Every year since a 1994 crackdown on the aesthetic rules -- known as covenants -- the Columbia Association has sued about a dozen residents to ensure upkeep in the aging planned community.

When it goes to court, the association almost always wins. And court records show its attorneys will use the full authority of the law to pursue these cases.

In April, a local judge issued an arrest warrant for John Ables Jr., a Long Reach resident, after he did not appear for a contempt of court hearing on charges that he had failed to fix a broken fence, neaten his lawn and replace rotting trim on his house.

Ables, who had not been arrested as of yesterday, did not return calls seeking comment.

In October, another judge approved a Columbia Association request that a woman be arrested. She was later cleared of responsibility for an unapproved fence on Lacelike Row in Owen Brown Village.

Ignored letters at first

In Stuart's case, he admits he got letters pointing out the problems with his house. At first he ignored them, but eventually he met with the covenant adviser and thought everything was ironed out.

Then last year he was hit with a lawsuit -- the algae are gross, the trampoline is an eyesore, the apparently out-of-commission car a violation.

A Howard County Circuit judge ruled in January that Stuart was in violation of the covenants after he failed to respond to the complaint. He faces a contempt-of-court charge for which he could be jailed.

Ottilie Grim, the covenant adviser who inspected Stuart's home and met with him last summer, says that since the Corvette is properly licensed, it is not in violation and should not have been included in the lawsuit.

Still, the court order -- and threat of a contempt citation -- stands. And after a recent visit, Grimm added bags of mulch in the back of Stuart's house to the list of complaints.

Columbia Association attorney Shelby Tucker-King did not return calls seeking comment on Stuart's case.

"I think it's ludicrous," Stuart said when told by a reporter that his car was legal, months after the suit was filed. "I'm puzzled. I've been puzzled. We're fed up with it. They don't bother with the facts."

Stuart said he recently met with an attorney: "I hate like heck to use money on a lawyer that I could use to send my son to school."

Difference of opinion

The Columbia covenants are revered and reviled, coveted and criticized. Some say they are too strict and arbitrarily enforced. Others say they are too lenient and the enforcement process takes too long. But most agree that the regulations are vital to keeping this planned community looking manicured.

"If you don't [protect] them, you might as well throw them out the door, and you'll lose the atmosphere of the whole city," said Joseph Merke, former chairman of the Columbia Council. "You could end up with some pretty strange things, a chartreuse house where it used to be gray."

The most famous covenant lawsuit was a three-year fight over a satellite dish at a home in Long Reach. The homeowner alleged that he needed the dish for work; the Columbia Association said it was an eyesore. In August 1995, as the case was headed for trial, the homeowner agreed to plant five trees to hide the device.

Most covenant complaints are settled at the village level, officials said. Columbia has 10 villages, each typically governed by a five-member board. Each village has different covenant regulations. Residents receive a copy of them when they purchase the property.

Part-time employees enforce the rules by checking on complaints from neighborhood residents. They visit suspect homes and bring complaints to the village board.

If the problem is not resolved, a case can be referred to the Architectural Review Committee, another village body, which decides whether to take legal action.

Neighbors are watching

Association officials say covenant enforcement is neighborhood-driven: They act only on neighbors' concerns.

"It's not a police-type operation," said Tucker-King, who handles the covenant lawsuits. "It's like Neighborhood Watch. Neighbors monitor neighbors."

But some, like Stuart, compare the covenant enforcement to tactics used by the infamous Nazi police, the Gestapo.

"You are living your life like everybody else. All of a sudden somebody says, 'Well, we don't like that,' and they apparently believe they have the force of law behind them," Stuart said.

Columbia neighbors clearly keep their eyes on each other. In 1995, the most recent year for which figures are available, covenant advisers received 1,102 complaints. Of those, 864 were deemed covenant violations by the village boards.

One Hickory Ridge resident has shown more than 200 pictures of her neighbors' algae-covered shutters and clashing house decor to council and village boards, Columbia Association members said.

Stuart says he has shot 10 rolls of film -- about 260 pictures -- of other people's homes in Owen Brown that he says are in violation.

In the past fiscal year, Tucker-King handled more than 60 cases referred to her for legal action. Most are settled before reaching court. Before a lawsuit is filed, several letters are sent to the offending property owner.

"There are people who are steadfast in their beliefs that, 'This, by golly, is my property and who are you to tell me' " what to do with it, Tucker-King said. "We're pursuing it to the end because we believe the covenants should be enforced."

With a lawsuit come all the trappings of the judicial system. In a room of Howard County's circuit courthouse, next to files holding charges for drug-dealing and wife-beating, sit files filled with Polaroid photos of homes with limp grass and missing shutters.

In Andrea Ostrander's file are pictures of her driveway, her front porch and her back yard, glued onto pieces of white paper. Her Camelback Lane address is written on each one.

Pushing to the limit

A resident of Oakland Mills since 1986, Ostrander was sued in March because of cracks in the driveway, items stored on her porch and "dead vegetation."

Ostrander responded in a court filing that the driveway is fixed, nothing is stored on the front porch and she is weeding the raspberry patch.

The case remains open.

Ostrander, the mother of five, said she has often received letters complaining about such things as toys in the yard. So she and her family began to delight in a work-to-rule approach to the system.

Every Christmas, she says, she puts a large peace sign draped with lights on her front porch. Neighborhood rules allow such displays but say they can remain only for the holidays and not after the "time appropriate for use."

Ostrander says she has waited to get as many as three letters from the covenant adviser telling her to take down the lights or face legal action. The day before the deadline, she turns the lights off.

"We would literally go out at 11: 45 p.m. and unplug it," said Ostrander, a home hospice nurse. "It's gotten to the point where we kind of take pride in it."

Pub Date: 6/03/98

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