Greenbelt community to vote on smoking ban option


Marlboro cigarettes. Photographer: Chris Goodney/Bloomberg (Chris Goodney/BLOOMBERG)
July 11, 2012

Greenbelt Homes Inc., a cooperative that owns about 1,600 row houses in historic Greenbelt, is considering a rule that would allow residents to ban smoking in the properties if all of those living in a row of four to five homes are in agreement.

The ban would then be written into their mutual ownership contract, a document that outlines what members can and cannot do to their homes.

After a petition seeking an option to ban smoking, signed by 52 of the more than 1,600 co-op members, was submitted to the GHI board of directors in May, a committee headed by board president Susan Ready was formed to address the issue. The committee is working with legal advisers to draft a proposal that members could vote on at the annual meeting in May, Ready said.

The issue of smoking in GHI homes came to the fore after a resident brought a lawsuit against the co-op in March 2010, said General Manager Eldon Ralph. The resident alleged the co-op failed to protect him against the nuisance of his neighbors’ cigarette smoke, which he claimed was drifting into his home. A judge ruled in favor of GHI in November because the resident could not prove damages, but the case led to the petition as residents look for ways to keep smokers and nonsmokers happy in the close quarters of GHI’s row houses, Ralph said.

Rita Turner, managing director of the University of Maryland School of Law’s Legal Resource Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation and Advocacy, said there is a growing trend of public housing authorities, private condominium boards and apartment management companies moving toward smoke-free policies. At least 50 buildings in Maryland, including assisted-living facilities and high-end apartments and condominiums, are smoke-free, Turner said.

Although Ready said she never has had an issue with neighbors smoking in the 42 years she has lived in the GHI community, the buildings are old, she said, and it’s possible that ventilation between homes could be an issue.

The homes that make up GHI were built as part of the federal government’s experiments with planned communities in the 1930s and 1940s. During the Great Depression, the communities provided construction jobs and low-income housing for federal workers. When Congress voted in 1952 to sell the three communities it had built — the other two were in Wisconsin and Ohio — residents pooled their resources to create a housing co-op.

The co-op home ownership arrangement is different than traditional models of homeownership, Ralph said.

“You own your membership in the co-op, not your home,” Ralph said. “Each member has one-sixteen-hundredths of ownership in the whole co-op.”

The whole co-op consists of 1,600 homes on 256 acres, including 85 acres of wooded area set aside as part of a forest conservation plan.

“Co-op living is not for everyone,” Ready said. “We do have a say about what our neighbors next door do in their homes.”

Other rules include GHI oversight of any major improvements such as renovations and landscaping. Units also are subject to inspection by GHI.

In return for following the rules and paying membership fees, many repairs are taken care of by GHI, including standard electrical and plumbing fixtures and roofing.

“One of the beautiful things about living in GHI is that I’ve never had to schedule a day off to let the plumber in,” Ready said. “The co-op takes care of that.”

Banding together and building consensus has a long tradition in Greenbelt, Ready said. The city also has a co-op grocery, a co-op nursery school and co-op cafe, all owned by members.

“It was part of the original plan of Greenbelt that people work together,” Ready said, referring to federal government surveys of potential tenants asking whether they would be involved in the community. “That spirit is still there.”

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