If good fences make good neighbors, then what do big garages make?
It's a riddle several Baltimore County families have grappled with in recent months as they have watched sturdy, imposing steel-sided buildings rise a few yards from their homes.
The answer is difficult.
"It's been a dream to live on the water," said Dave Stiller, a steel worker who owns 2 picturesque acres along Hawk's Cove in the far eastern reaches of the county. "To have someone come and destroy it with a commercial-type building in a setting that's rural, it's a shame."
Stiller and other homeowners along secluded Fantat Road, a dead-end street of eight homes, are distressed by the plans of a couple to build a garage bigger than their house.
Andy and Alberta Ramult are erecting a 1,200-square-foot metal building next to the 1,000-square-foot home they bought in 1997. The two structures would be linked by a 30-foot breezeway.
"I didn't realize it was such a problem," said Alberta Ramult, who said the garage will house the couple's motorcycle collection and a 1957 Ford Fairlane awaiting restoration. "They are perfectly good, durable buildings."
The metal structures, similar to those commonly seen at self-storage facilities or auto-body shops, are legal in residential areas under county zoning laws. County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat, said that is a problem.
"In my opinion, it's not a minor nuisance. It sticks out like a sore thumb in a neighborhood," said Gardina, who knows of at least two similar buildings in his district. "And if you get two or three of them in a neighborhood, it could change the entire character."
Gardina and Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican, are asking the county planning board to consider new regulations that would ensure that garages complement the houses around them. A formal measure will be introduced at the County Council meeting Monday night.
The issue is especially sensitive in Baltimore County, which is fighting to preserve its aging residential communities as families flock to newer, larger homes in outlying suburbs.
Many of the county's older houses are affordable to those who earn their livings with their hands and often tinker with motorcycles, boat engines or antique cars. Why shouldn't they be allowed, they argue, to build what they want to house their tools, spare parts and projects?
"I'm a builder, so I put up a building I'm familiar with," said Karl Wingerd, a boat builder who recently constructed a 1,200-square-foot metal garage for his home amid the tidy brick ranch-style houses in the Perry Hall/White Marsh area.
"I followed the letter of the law," Wingerd said. "If you want to live in a cookie-cutter neighborhood, then move to one. I think it's a good-looking building, but everybody has different taste."
Several of Wingerd's neighbors do have tastes that contrast with his.
"To me, it looks like a white metal barn," said Doris Pluemer, 69, a retired substitute teacher. "He should have thought about the looks of the neighborhood."
In White Marsh and elsewhere, neighbors fret that the garages could be used for illegal businesses such as after-hours car-repair shops. They also fear that the values of their homes are being eroded.
Alberta Ramult, the Fantat Road garage owner, says she has no intention of ruining her surroundings. "I teach in Sunday school and sing in church. I'm a good person," she said. "It's my property value, too."
Personal preferences might render the issue unresolvable.
The County Council's resolution asks that garages be "compatible with similar structures" around them. But that language allows too much room for individual taste, says Arnold Jablon, head of permits and development management for the county.
"I find the term 'compatible' to be very loose and very subjective," he said. "It's going to be very difficult to tell someone who wants to put up a shed that it can't be metal."
Jablon says the zoning laws have worked well for 30 years and probably don't need to be changed. Regulations already dictate where garages generally should be situated (the back yard), how high they can be (15 feet) and their size (they are prohibited from covering more than 40 percent of the yard).
"It's not a major issue countywide," Jablon said.
Gardina feels a greater sense of urgency.
"You don't have to wait until it's a problem until you correct it," he said. "It could mushroom into a problem."
Meanwhile, the garages are tattering friendships in the communities where they rise.
On Fantat Road, neighbors have traded terse letters. Opponents claim the garage will devalue their waterfront property; the garages' owners argue that their former friends "are treating us like we were child molesters."
In the White Marsh neighborhood, homeowners are taking swipes about each other's ages.
"People like me don't call Vince Gardina's office, because I'm too busy at work," said Wingerd, the boat-builder, referring to the complaints leveled against him. "I guess when I'm 65, I'll have the time to call his office 20 times a day."