Montgomery homeowner learns back yard is a no-mow zone

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 10:25 PM

For five years, Michael and Linda Sandler treated the back yard of their Silver Spring house like, well, their own back yard. They cut the grass, built a small flower bed, enjoyed the usual domain over their little patch of suburbia.

Then came a letter last February from Montgomery County officials telling them that by mowing their grass, they were breaking the law. Their raised garden bed would have to go, along with Mike's portable basketball hoop, a canoe and about 100 square feet of their asphalt driveway.

Almost all of their back yard, the letter said, was part of a forest conservation plan agreed to by the property's previous owner. An ironclad addendum to their deed, attached for perpetuity, forbade them to mow, dig, erect fences or pull weeds. The land was legally required to revert to its wild state.

The couple says it was all news to them.

"We were in shock," said Linda Sandler, standing in the roomy house on Timber View Court near the intersection of Kemp Mill and Randolph roads. The dining room table was covered in documents, including one that hits them with a $2,500 fine. "It was the first we'd heard of it. I didn't even know what a conservation easement was."

A year later, the Sandlers and three other families on their block remain caught in a bureaucratic tangle that is becoming more common as the county's booming growth pushes farther into environmentally sensitive areas.

"There are more and more properties encumbered with these easements, and we're seeing more and more violations," said Michele Rosenfeld, a former park and planning lawyer who now represents homeowners who find themselves on the wrong side of the easement law. "Sometimes they knew about the easement, sometimes they didn't."

The county oversees almost 2,500 conservation easements on private property. Planners now routinely require them when landholders seek to subdivide properties close to stream beds or established forests, a practice that has become increasingly common in booming Montgomery.

With the growth in easements has come a surge in complaints. The Sandler family was one of 78 owners cited by the county for easement infractions last year, up from 26 in 2004.

The Sandlers say they were never told that the lot they bought in 2003, which slopes down to a stream called the Northwest Branch, carried such strict protections. They didn't pay much attention to the deed or the official plat, both of which describe the easement.

The Sandlers did find a paragraph in their contract that indicates their property includes "land dedicated to a conservation easement as part of a Forest Conservation Plan." That paragraph is checked "Yes" and the Sandlers' signatures are on the form. But Michael said they read right over it in the flurry of signing dozens of closing documents.

"It's this little thing hidden in there," said Michael, a financial planner. "Listen, we wouldn't have bought the place if we knew we couldn't use the back yard."

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