Scott Donahoo knew he was breaking the rules when he built a house for his 89-year old mother in Pasadena.
He didn't have a permit, and Anne Arundel County had ordered him to stop work on the residence, which would occupy the same waterfront property as Donahoo's three-bedroom summer house on Rock Creek.
But Donahoo, a local car dealer known for his outlandish TV commercials, went ahead - paying $2,100 in fines along the way - because, he said, he was determined to move his mother from Ocean City to a place where he and his brother could look after her.
Such good intentions aside, Anne Arundel officials say Donahoo, who lives in Cockeysville, had no excuse for building in an environmentally protected area without a permit. Last week, they filed suit in Circuit Court, asking a judge to order the house demolished. They also asked for an injunction to keep Donahoo's mother from living at the house while the case is pending.
Donahoo, 48, says the county has abandoned common sense by refusing to strike a deal. "I'm not a dummy. I knew I was taking some chance, but I never thought these people would not give me a way to go," he said.
County attorneys say Donahoo's decision to build the house is one of the most egregious violations that they have seen of laws designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay.
"This is exactly the type of thing the Critical Area law was designed to stop," said David A. Plymyer, the deputy county attorney for Anne Arundel. "The bay is being nickel-and-dimed to death by these things. When somebody does something like that, he's telling us we have to come after him."
Donahoo, who owns Foreign Motors Kia on Belair Road in Hamilton, has appeared in offbeat commercials in the Baltimore area as a hillbilly, a judge, a lounge singer and Santa Claus (in that one, his dog sported reindeer antlers). He flirted with a mayoral run in Baltimore last year but decided against a bid because, he said, he didn't want to shift his primary residence to the city.
As for his Anne Arundel property, he at first applied to build a stand-alone garage on the Water Oak Point Road site. But when his father died two years ago, he decided the structure would make a nice place for his mother, Ruth Donahoo. He had promised his father that he would never put her into a nursing home, and she refused to move in with him or his brother.
"Mom is almost 90 years old, she's blind, and her wheels ain't so good, but she's sharp as a tack and she's an independent person," Donahoo said.
The problem was that Donahoo had never obtained permission to build on the property, and in October 2002, the county ordered work on the house to stop.
In April last year, the county Health Department ruled that the property did not have enough sewage capacity to serve a second house. Donahoo appealed that decision, but the county Board of Appeals stood by the Health Department and denied his permit. So he filed another appeal in Anne Arundel Circuit Court. No judge has heard the case.
Donahoo said the county's arguments about sewage capacity defy common sense. The septic system at his vacation house is designed to serve a family year-round, but he said he uses the house only about one month a year. That month of use combined with his mother's septic use would not strain the system's capacity, he argued.
He said he also offered to upgrade the system or ensure regular maintenance. As the permit case rolled on, he paid several fines, hoping that would put an end to his troubles. But he never stopped building, and his mother moved into the one-story, 1,600-square-foot house last summer.
She does not belong there, say county officials, who have been trying to crack down on illegal construction near the bay. In most cases, that means ordering fines on people who build piers or decks without permission.
But the house is a continuing problem that can't be fixed with a payoff, said Plymyer, who said Donahoo's construction also violates laws designed to prevent runoff into the bay and its tributaries.
County officials rarely ask to have a building demolished for such violations, and judges rarely grant such requests.
"We're asking for an extraordinary remedy, but that fact is, that's the only avenue of remediation in this case," Plymyer said. He added that the county hasn't encountered many cases of people flouting the law by building houses without permission.