A Baltimore County judge heard Round 3 yesterday in a legal battle that revolves around whether a kitchen addition planned for a Rodgers Forge rowhouse would be built in its side or backyard.
To resolve the dispute, Judge Ruth A. Jakubowski must answer the seemingly simple question of which side of Brigid and Dave Wilder's brick Colonial revival house is its front.
"It's all about setbacks and location, location, location," the judge said at the start of yesterday's hearing, telling both sides that she has reviewed everything in the thick court file, including photographs and architectural drawings, lawyers' briefs and transcripts of hearings.
The Wilders have prevailed in the first two rounds of the fight with the Rodgers Forge Community Association, which has challenged the couple's plans to expand their kitchen with a 13-by-13-foot addition and add a 9-by-13-foot covered porch onto their end-of-group rowhouse.
The community association has said the addition would threaten the architectural and aesthetic integrity of a neighborhood carefully laid out in 1923 by a Baltimore developer intent on building a better rowhouse.
The association's leaders and lawyer argue that the front of the Wilders' house is the side facing Murdock Road, the couple's mailing address. The couple counter that the front is the side of the house with the main entrance, mailbox, doorbell, ornamental light, welcome sign, lamppost and walkway, all of which are around the corner facing Pinehurst Road.
At issue are the different setbacks required for additions to the side or the back of a house. Although the Wilders' building plans fit within the county's requirements for setbacks on the side of a house, the addition would leave too little open space if the construction site is found to be in the backyard.
The dispute began in October 2003 just as a mason was finishing the foundation for the Wilders' one-story, $50,000 addition. The couple, who have three children, had obtained the required building permit and bought new cabinetry and appliances. But the county ordered the Wilders to stop work on the project, based on a neighbor's complaint that the construction appeared to violate the county's setback requirements for backyards.
After losing before a zoning commissioner - who alluded to the classic "Who's on first" comedy routine in describing the argument - and before the county Board of Appeals, the community association filed an appeal in Circuit Court.
J. Carroll Holzer, an attorney representing the community association, told the judge that the Wilders' property must be considered in the context of the entire row of houses along Murdock Road. The county appeals board erred, Holzer said, in apparently ignoring testimony regarding the pouring of the original foundation of the "front wall" for that whole row of homes. The board also "disregarded the plain language of the zoning regulations," Holzer said, which define a front yard as the area "extending across the full width of the lot, between the front lot line and the front foundation wall of the main building."
Holzer also emphasized that the implications of the Wilders' construction project could stretch well beyond the borders of the family's 3,500-square-foot lot.
Ruling in the Wilders' favor "causes the community definitional problems and precedential problems," Holzer said. "They would have two side yards. And every end-of-group house could then put whatever they want in their two side yards."
But Justin J. King, an attorney for the Wilders, told the judge that the definitions contained within the county's zoning regulations only muddle the matter. He said the definition of front yard reminded him of his late mother's frequent admonition against using a word you're trying to define within the definition.
King also directed the judge to a case, City of Baltimore v. Siwinski, in which Maryland's highest court found that the word "front," considered in a vacuum, has little if any meaning when applied to a city lot. Rather, the judges found that the front of a house is the side that contains the main entrance and that is aesthetically the most pleasing, King said.
Encouraging Jakubowski to study the photographs of the Wilders' rowhouse, King said, "Judge, you sit in the privacy of your office and you decide which side of this building has the main entrance and you decide which side of this building is the most aesthetically pleasing. I suggest to you it is the Pinehurst side."
Jakubowski said she expects to issue a written ruling in the case in two to four weeks.