Panel Says House Is Over the Line

Marianne and Marc Duffy's house, seen from the rear, is too close to the street and to neighbors, an appeals board says.
Marianne and Marc Duffy's house, seen from the rear, is too close to the street and to neighbors, an appeals board says. (Photos By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006

Marianne and Marc Duffy say their dream home renovation in Chevy Chase has turned into a suburban nightmare. Their neighbors say the Duffys intentionally flouted building rules when they expanded their $725,000 house on Thornapple Street and have no one to blame but themselves.

Yesterday, a Montgomery County appeals board reaffirmed an earlier ruling that the Duffys had rebuilt their house too close to the street and to neighbors. The Duffys say the decision leaves them two choices: Move the house a few feet at a cost of $100,000 or continue an expensive battle in court.

"My husband and I did nothing wrong, and literally, our property was taken," Marianne Duffy said.

Jane Mayer, who lives next door to the unfinished house, sees it differently: "What they told [the county] they were going to do is not what they did."

The dispute has shed new light on the inner workings of the county's Department of Permitting Services, which reversed course at least five times in the case, the Duffys said. The agency issued renovation permits to the couple last year but later pulled them back and ordered work stopped after neighbors complained that the Duffys had actually demolished and rebuilt the house. The couple are renting a house nearby.

The case has pitted the Duffys, both securities lawyers, against a group of prominent opponents, including two journalists -- Mayer, a writer for the New Yorker magazine, and her husband, William Hamilton, a Washington Post editor -- as well as lawyer Michael Eig and his historic preservationist wife Emily Hotaling Eig, former ABC News reporter Jackie Judd and real estate agent Kristin Gerlach. Both sides had lawyers but recently decided to represent themselves.

Neither side has signaled a willingness to give up the fight, while acknowledging the strain the protracted battle, including six days of hearings, has put on their lives.

The dispute has roiled the neighborhood, sparked contentious discussions at Town Council meetings, generated letters to local newspapers and debates on talk radio, and fueled discussions about liberal conspiracies. Marianne Duffy says someone recently left a bag of dog poop in her mailbox. The neighbors say they are sympathetic and had nothing to do with it.

Neighbors say the Duffys, who acted as their own general contractors, created the problems by rebuilding the house section by section while labeling it a renovation. The difference is more than semantic. Building regulations enacted long after the house was built in 1923 require houses to be farther from the street and from neighbors. A renovation means the house can stay where it is; a new home would have to be sited differently on the lot.

"They illegally demolished a house and then constructed a new one," said Emily Hotaling Eig, whose husband argued the neighbors' case at yesterday's hearing.

The Duffys insist that they did the work one section at a time, all of it with county approval. They said previously undiscovered building rot caused them to take down the front of the house after putting an addition on the back.

That combination of changes provoked the neighbors' complaint a year ago that the Duffys had demolished the entire house without a permit.

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