In most neighborhoods, new vinyl siding is a home-improvement project.
In historic districts, it's a sin.
Two suburban families recently learned that painful fact the hard way when they covered aging asbestos siding with vinyl and were ordered to remove it, at a cost each said would top $60,000.
They say they had no idea that they were living in areas with historic regulations when they installed the modern siding - the Harrises on their century-old house in downtown Ellicott City and the Badarts on their mid-19th-century home in the Elkridge neighborhood of Lawyers Hill.
Their struggle is not unique. Dozens of neighborhoods throughout Maryland have historic protections, and sometimes newcomers are given no warning that what they do with the outsides of their homes is someone else's business.
To members of historic commissions charged with regulating the districts and to many families who live in the communities they oversee, surrendering some control is a reasonable compromise in the effort to maintain an area's old-time character.
Others feel they have been drafted into the effort without being told. In Howard County, residents of the two historic districts are given no formal notification of the extra rules governing them. (Lawyers Hill was designated a historic district in 1994, and Ellicott City's historic district was first defined in the 1970s.)
"There's no tip-off, nothing. ... They never cared enough to make sure we knew," said Lisa Badart, 47, who thought she was in compliance because the county doesn't require permits for vinyl or aluminum siding.
She and husband, Nick Badart, moved to Lawyers Hill in 1998 and installed the vinyl in 2000 over the section of their house with dingy asbestos siding. They said they were trying to make the house look more like the way it did at the turn of the previous century.
Dwayne Harris, 38, nailed on his siding four years ago, shortly after buying the property, to cover cracking asbestos shingles.
The old artificial siding wasn't a legal problem because both homes had it before the historic districts were designated. The vinyl was another matter.
Neighbors complained to the county, which sent the homeowners before the Historic District Commission in 2000. The commission said the new siding had to go. Its guidelines recommend against synthetic materials; wood is preferred.
Ten days ago, both families returned to plead their cases again. The difference in the outcome of the two cases is striking.
Harris, a self-employed plumber, said he is taking care of four children and three nephews, and needed to spruce up his house, built about 1900, cheaply.
To remove the vinyl and install German lap wood siding would cost $60,000 to $70,000, contractors told him. He said that would ruin him.
Meanwhile, Harris pointed out, four other vinyl-sided homes sit on his dead-end lane, a residential area away from Main Street. "You've allowed it before, and you've allowed it after me," he said before the hearing. "I didn't see nothing wrong with it. ... It looks like wood."
Commission members debated whether they should consider ability to pay, and they worried about possibly setting a precedent.
"There's a lot of houses out there with asbestos siding. ... I would hate to see this become standard operating procedure, where you slap on the siding, come to us and cry financial hardship," said commissioner Van Wensil, who lives in Lawyers Hill.
In the end, the commissioners seemed to be swayed by the thought that any effort to tear off the vinyl could leave the home clad in the original, deteriorated asbestos. Members voted 5-0, with one abstention, to allow Harris' home to remain as it is.
"The vinyl siding looks a whole lot better," said commissioner Anita Gallitano, an Ellicott City resident.
The Badarts, who appeared next, were not as fortunate.
Nick Badart, 65, a retired businessman, showed the commission photographs of the water-damaged wood under the old asbestos on his home to bolster his argument that vinyl is a suitable alternative. The commissioners didn't agree.
The Badarts' home - a converted barn built in the mid-19th century - sits on a tree-dotted rise high above Lawyers Hill Road where the majority of the board thought it was too visible for vinyl. Members voted 4-1 against the siding, with one abstention.
"This is a real key property for our district," Wensil said. "This is the first property you see when you come in."
Though no fan of vinyl, commissioner and vice chairman Charles E. Hogg Jr. cast the lone vote in favor of keeping it. He said the two cases were similar: "We've kind of gotten on a slippery slope here. To me, [the vinyl] has enhanced the look of the house."
Nick Badart, who said he would not have installed siding had he known about the regulations, expects to appeal to Circuit Court. The case could take months to resolve.
"What they're doing is, they're fining me $60,000," he said.
Marsha S. McLaughlin, Howard County's deputy director of planning, believes that officials should consider notifying newcomers that they've bought property in a historic area, but said "the assumption is that everyone in the historic district pretty much knows."
Two of Harris' neighbors - including one who installed vinyl without getting into trouble - told the commission they believed that the historic district applied to Main Street only.
"Nobody ever told me," said O'Neal Smith, 77, who has lived in Ellicott City for nearly a half-century, longer than the historic district has existed.