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Montgomery homeowner learns back yard is a no-mow zone
Planning officials say they can't be present at, or even aware of, every real estate closing. Under county law, a property's seller is responsible for disclosing the existence of a conservation easement. And the buyer, the moment he or she becomes the owner, is on the hook for maintaining it.
"We usually hear from them, unfortunately, after they've built their pool," said Cathy Conlon, a supervisor in the planning office. "We've been preaching for years to the real estate agents to be more forthcoming with buyers and to encourage them to contact us."
In recent years, the agency has launched an effort to inform people about the easements, including a new Web site that shows easements for every address in the county. Since 2009, the county has taken to sending owners notices of violations, withholding penalties if the infractions end.
"Our goal is compliance, not collecting fines from people," said planning department spokesman Valerie Burton.
The easement covering most of the Sandlers' back yard was created by the previous owner, Mervin Yetley, who had a single house on a very large lot. In 2003, the county approved Yetley's request to subdivide his land on condition that an easement area running along the back of all five lots was allowed to grow as undisturbed forest, forever.
The Sandlers bought one piece of the property and immediately joined the other four buyers in signing with a builder to construct the homes. Neither Yetley nor the builder mentioned the easement, Michael said.
Yetley, who moved to Upper Marlboro, did not return several messages. But the builder, Mautaz Ezzat of Gaithersburg, said all the buyers knew about the conservation plan, or should have.
"Absolutely, they knew," Ezzat said. "I was aware there was an easement in the back of the property and I have no doubt they knew about it."
Ezzat said all of the buyers came to a meeting to pick colors and review plans for their new houses. All of the plans showed the easement, he said, although he could recall no other specific conversations about the protected area.
Sandler said he never heard a word about the easement.
"All of these people were aware of the easement, but they didn't tell me about it?" he said. "They all made a lot of money off of the deal."
The Sandlers' next-door neighbor, Yemi Fashima, has less of his yard covered by the easement but still faces a $1,000 fine for mowing the area and other infractions. He said he was aware of "some kind" of conservation area, but thought it was a much smaller one defined by a silt fence that was erected closer to the stream during construction.