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January 26, 2007

A Victory For Property Rights In Maryland

by Doug Mataconis

Last year, a Judge in Montgomery County, Maryland ruled that Marianne and Marc Duffy, who had bought and renovated a home in Chevy Chase, would have to tear the house down because it violated county zoning laws, even though the house as constructed had been approved by the county.

This week, another judge in Maryland overruled that decision and said that the Duffy’s would not be required to tear down their home:

Marc and Marianne Duffy, cited last year for building violations in a high-profile case, will be able to resume work on their Chevy Chase home, a Montgomery County judge has ruled.

The decision by Circuit Court Judge Nelson W. Rupp Jr. overturned two rulings by a county board that said the Duffys improperly rebuilt their Thornapple Street house too close to the street and to neighbors. Those rulings had left the couple with a choice between tearing down the house or finding a way to move it a few feet.

“As far as we’re concerned, this is now over. . . . The Duffys can finish their home without the need for any more permits,” the couple’s attorney, Michele Rosenfeld, said in an e-mail statement.

What was more interesting about the case, though, is the fact that it pitted the Duffy’s against some very high-profile neighbors:

The case attracted attention because it pitted the Duffys, both securities lawyers, against a group of prominent opponents, who raised questions about how well the county was enforcing its building regulations.

The Duffys’ neighbors had watched with alarm as the early-20th-century house began to look drastically different after several months of work. They complained to county officials that the Duffys, who had obtained permission to renovate the house, were rebuilding it instead, which would require that it be sited differently on the lot.

The neighbors include two journalists who live next door — Jane Mayer, a writer for the New Yorker magazine, and her husband, William Hamilton, a Washington Post editor — lawyer Michael Eig and his wife, historic preservationist Emily Hotaling Eig, former ABC News reporter Jackie Judd and real estate agent Kristin Gerlach.

In other words, a few politically connected neighbors were trying to screw over the little guy.

This isn’t eminent domain, but it might as well be. Through zoning laws such as this, the government often restricts the ways in which property owners can use their property in manners which have a significant impact on their value, none of which is compensated. While we’re paying attention to the impact of Kelo, we shouldn’t forget that there are other laws that restrict property rights.

Thankfully, at least one judge in Maryland is on the right side of this.

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8 Comments

  1. My wife and I are suffering a VERY SIMILAR attack on our property rights and are awaiting a date from the Montgomery Co Circuit Court as to when our appeal will be heard. We applied for and were granted 2 seperate times a Mont. Co. MD DPS building permit to setup a used, older 14×60 industrialized modular building as an accessory building in our 20,000 sq ft back yard to use for storage like a large shed. Because the neighbors didn’t like how it looked (like a large construction trailer) and wouldn’t wait till we had a chance to finish setting it up, erect a fence and overall improve its looks, they appealed against us. Eventually they got the exact same county council (as in the Duffy case) to rule against us and have our building permit cancelled. Whereas all the parties in the Chevy Chase case were quite well-off and well-connected, we and our neighbors are all very middle class, working class. We are delighted to stumble on this case in time to hopefully use it as a precident to argue from in our case. The only problem is that we are so poor that we can not afford a lawyer. Instead we are appealing Pro Se and have spent countless hours drafting our own initial Memorandum tediously outlining in woefully inadequate detail our arguments. We have just filed this document with the court and expect to receive a hearing date any time. If anyone knows anyone that could offer us any legal advice or assistance we would be ever so grateful. Time is running out. Please contact me at crewsl@gc.adventist.org or call me at 301-680-6555 if you have any help or suggestions to offer.

    Thanks a lot..!

    PS. It was because of my wife’s father’s death last year and her mother’s Altzheimer’s that we moved to & bought this small house on 2/3 acres last fall and need the extra storage space of the accessory building that’s being denied us.

    Comment by Larry Crews — January 28, 2007 @ 1:43 pm
  2. The Duffy’s dont sound like the little guy.
    If nobody else in the neighbor is allowed to over build
    why should they be granted favors ??
    Alot of these selfish individuals, although knowing the current
    zoning rules, just go ahead building thinking they can grandfather it in after the fact.
    The world is not a family but a community of others.

    Comment by Markangelo — January 29, 2007 @ 11:42 am
  3. Yeah, wouldn’t want to let someone build anything on their own property that the “Community” doesn’t like. You tell ‘em Markangelo!

    Comment by Adam Selene — January 29, 2007 @ 12:19 pm
  4. So you think people should be able to build a five story building all the way to their property line? Sure that’s hyperbole, but there HAVE to be laws in place to PROTECT property owners from others destroying their property value.

    Comment by Dabney Johnson — January 31, 2007 @ 1:31 pm
  5. There have to be laws in place to protect me from your desire to regulate what I may do with my property.

    If I cause damage to your property through my actions on my property why wouldn’t you bring a civil suit or criminal charges, depending on the situation? Why the need to regulate and intervene and control my property?

    Comment by Adam Selene — January 31, 2007 @ 6:46 pm
  6. Dabney,

    Does the fact that the County Zoning officials initially approved the construction of the Duffy’s home mean nothing to you ?

    If it weren’t for the actions of a few politically connected neighborhood busybodies, who, by the way, didn’t object when other neighbors got similar zoning variances, this never would have been an issue.

    Comment by Doug Mataconis — January 31, 2007 @ 7:42 pm
  7. “Does the fact that the County Zoning officials initially approved the construction of the Duffy’s home mean nothing to you ?”

    The initial construction did not include razing the whole house. The county did make a mistake by saying they didn’t need further permits to continue to tear down their house one wall at a time. However, two wrongs don’t make a right. This may sound harsh, but who’s to say that their intent wasn’t to circumvent the process by starting with a renovation when their intent was a tear down? I’ve seen builders leave a foundation and one wall up so they could do a “renovation” instead of a new build, only to replace that wall later in the construction.

    Comment by Dabney Johnson — February 1, 2007 @ 2:04 pm
  8. “If I cause damage to your property through my actions on my property why wouldn’t you bring a civil suit or criminal charges, depending on the situation? Why the need to regulate and intervene and control my property?”

    You have a very interesting view of the law and why laws are established. I should have to sue and incur unbelievable costs and hardships after you build something that ruins my property value? That’s terribly backwards Adam. If you want to do something that has been deemed potentially damaging to others, the burden should be on you.

    Comment by Dabney Johnson — February 1, 2007 @ 2:07 pm

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