Judge rules against facility; Assisted-living home in Wilde Lake said to violate covenant


A Howard County Circuit judge has ruled that the owners of a home for the elderly in Columbia violated neighborhood covenant regulations, a decision that will eventually force the home to close.

The latest action comes as residents across the state continue to battle a growing number of assisted-living facilities, ranging in size from two-story houses to larger facilities accommodating 100 or more senior citizens. How this case will affect those projects is unclear, but it could bolster an already powerful tool -- covenants.

"Like any other in-home business, [homes for the elderly] can be questioned on a case-by-case basis to determine what kind of impact there is in regard to the surrounding neighborhood," said David H. Bamberger, an attorney who represented the Village of Wilde Lake.

The ruling by Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. ended another chapter in a long legal fight between Wilde Lake and Richard Colandrea and his mother, Carmen, owners of Bryant Woods Inc.

Bryant Woods runs the disputed group home on Waterfowl Terrace in Wilde Lake and another on the same street.

The ruling affects only one of the homes.

Neither Colandrea nor his attorneys could be reached for comment. It was not known whether the decision will be appealed.

Colandrea has argued that Wilde Lake violated a federal housing law designed to protect the elderly and others with disabilities from discrimination.

But in an 11-page opinion filed yesterday, Kane said the covenants were not designed to discriminate against the elderly and applied to all businesses.

"This Court finds no violation of the FHA," Kane wrote, referring to the Fair Housing Act. "There is no evidence to establish that the Plaintiffs 'targeted' senior assisted living facilities in general, or Colandrea's facilities in particular, nor does the evidence suggest that the Plaintiffs have excluded such facilities from their community."

Kane's ruling will not cause the eviction of seniors at the home but will forbid Colandrea from accepting new residents or replacing those who leave.

In recent years, the number of homes for the elderly has exploded -- from 10 in Maryland in 1990 to 219 today -- to accommodate a growing population of senior citizens. That has pitted neighbors against the owners of small, and large, facilities.

In Ellicott City, residents are battling two proposed large homes, one off Old Columbia Pike and the other on U.S. 40. Kane's decision probably will not affect those fights, but state officials expressed concern yesterday about the growing number of opponents to homes for senior citizens.

"We're very sorry this happened," said Carol Benner, director of the Office of Health Care Quality for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"We'll be interested to look at the decision and then have the attorney general's office look at it," said Benner, whose office monitors the homes.

The history of the lawsuit goes back to 1992, when the Wilde Lake Village Board revised its architectural guidelines, which regulate in-home businesses to include facilities for the elderly.

A year later, Wilde Lake sued Colandrea when he failed to file an application for his two homes on Waterfowl Terrace with a village oversight committee.

In 1995, a Howard Circuit judge ruled in favor of Wilde Lake, and Colandrea submitted applications for his two homes.

In 1996, after holding several contentious hearings, during which residents complained about trash, noise and traffic coming from the homes, the committee approved one application but denied the other. It said two homes were too much for the residential neighborhood.

Despite that ruling, Colandrea didn't close the disputed home. Wilde Lake sued again and asked Kane to keep the home from accepting new residents or replacing those who left.

Colandrea and his supporters have fought several unsuccessful skirmishes in U.S. District Court. In the most recent action, a judge dismissed a case brought by an equal-housing advocacy group that was trying to prevent Wilde Lake from enforcing the covenant.

In an earlier action, Colandrea filed suit in federal court claiming that Howard County violated the Fair Housing Act when the Zoning Board declined to allow expansion of one of the homes.

A judge in U.S. District Court in Baltimore threw out the lawsuit in January 1996, and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision in August 1997. The court ruled that the Fair Housing Act didn't always supersede local laws.

"In enacting the Fair Housing Act, Congress clearly did not contemplate abandoning the deference that courts have traditionally shown to such local zoning codes," the decision said.

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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