Judge Rules for Chevy Chase Couple in Dispute Over Home Renovation

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007

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.

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.

The county's Department of Permitting Services, which issued and then withdrew building permits, added to the confusion by reversing course at least five times.

The agency issued renovation permits to the couple but pulled them back and ordered work stopped after neighbors complained. The county Board of Appeals, an appointed citizens panel, ruled against the Duffys after six days of hearings last year. The board later affirmed the ruling.

The judge's decision, issued last week, focused on how the appeals board interpreted county law affecting new construction, tear-downs and renovations, and he concluded that the board had applied the law incorrectly. The decision comes at a time when county enforcement of zoning and building regulations is under scrutiny because of problems elsewhere.

The Duffys, who acted as their own general contractors, said that they received permission from county officials to do the work and that previously undiscovered rot caused them to take down the front of the house after putting an addition on the back.

Marianne Duffy mounted a public relations campaign last year to call attention to the dispute, which she said had left the family unable to use its home. The Duffys are renting a house nearby. At the time, Duffy said the family couldn't get a fair shake because of the prominence of its opponents. Yesterday, she declined to comment, referring all questions to Rosenfeld.

Acting Montgomery County Attorney Marc P. Hansen, whose staff advises the board, allowed the Duffys' case to go unanswered. The office did not defend the appeals board's ruling once the Duffys challenged it in court.

News of the judge's ruling, and the county's decision to bow out of the case, angered and surprised neighbors yesterday.

"Because our elected government officials didn't even bother to defend their administrative board's very well-reasoned decision, we have a factually flawed, very unjust ruling that is going to be dangerous to our neighborhood and to this county," said Michael Eig, who acted as the group's attorney.

Eig said he was looking into the neighbors' legal options.

Judd said she was "horribly disappointed and dumbfounded by the county's inattention." She said the county's absence in court sends the message that "if you keep fighting, eventually the county will disappear."

Hansen said his office examines each case to see whether it has broad legal implications for county residents and had decided that this one did not. "Obviously, the case remains important to the people involved," he said. "We don't see a larger public impact of the case."

Allison Ishihara Fultz, a lawyer and chairman of the Board of Appeals, said the panel would review Rupp's ruling at its next work session, scheduled for Feb. 7.

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