In Montgomery Village, inspectors for the Montgomery Village Foundation, which controls all changes residents can make to their homes, recently found that 1,475 residents lacked approved storm doors.
So letters went out with descriptions of the authorized storm doors and a polite reminder that the foundation can seek legal action against those who fail to conform.
In Crofton, where covenants prohibit outdoor home antennas, Ronald Bollon has taken his fight to keep his outside television antenna to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. The American Civil Liberties Union has taken on his case and will try to prove that Bollon's homeowners' association, which wants him to take the antenna down, is guilty of violating his constitutional right to receive communication.
In Fairfax County, Wayne and Patricia Barnes asked neighbors to sign a petition supporting them against their subdivision's architectural control committee in a dispute over their outdoor chimney.
The committee maintains the Barneses violated their covenant by failing to get the committee's approval of their chimney.
Part of the deed, covenants are regulations to which subdivision residents agree. Many Washington area housing developments use them to foster neatness and to control the modifications that can be made to homes.
But the same covenants that were meant to ensure architectural harmony in suburban neighborhoods have done much to disrupt the satisfaction of suburban living for a growing number of residents who maintain their covenants are enforced to a ridiculous degree.
And, growing numbers of people are willing to take their cases to court to prove it.
In Montgomery Village, Margaret Degen, after four hours of debate with the Village Foundation over her backyard fence, took the dispute to the Montgomery County Circuit Court.
She had put up a solid wood fence and the village covenant permits only a split rail fence. She lost. The court upheld the covenant.
"The reason I wanted that fence was strictly for privacy. It's my yard, I'm paying for it," said Degen, an art teacher with Montgomery County schools.
"I felt I had a right to privacy as long as I was not offending anybody else . . . And the neighbors didn't object," she added.
In McLean, the governing association of the Stoneleigh condominium development has taken Emilie Wooten to court for painting her front door and shutters the wrong shade of blue.
When the association found out, it objected. After negotiations, Wooten learned that Jamestown blue and Britany blue would have been acceptable to the association's Architectural Standards Committee.But not the shade of royal blue "like the blue in the Exxon sign," which Wooten had chosen. Wooten found these acceptable colors "dull," and counterproposed another shade.
Before the committee's tentative approval came in, however, she said she "was fed up," and decided to leave her door the unapproved shade of royal blue. So the group took Wooten, an internal auditor for the National Automobile Dealers' Association, to court.
In an interview last December, Mark L. Nagel, the president of the Stoneleigh Association, which represents 134 brick town houses selling from $80,000 to $90,000, said, "We are trying to maintain a subdued atmosphere here, sort of a Williamsburg effect, you might say."
Covenant debates over solar panels on rooftops are also becoming almost common. In those cases, the architectural control committees must decide whether a homeowner should be allowed to disturb the architectural harmony of the neighborhood in return for using an energy-saving device.
Covenants can regulate everything in a subdivision from fences to clotheslines, shrubbery and even drappery linings.
There have been numerous dramatic disputes over covenants in the past. Perhaps the most famous was that of Arlington architect Brockhurst C. Sustice who had to tear down his block-like plywood house at Military and North Glebe roads because his neighbors felt it did not fit in the red-brick ramblers of the neighborhood.
Some suburban dwellers, however, support the use of covenants. Covenants "are important for esthetic reasons and for dollar reasons," said Mike Pace, head of the Crofton homeowner's association. "Call up any real estate agent and ask him how much covenants add to the value" of homes in subdivisions that enforce them, he said.
In Crofton, the homeowners association keeps a $9,000 legal fund for enforcing the covenants. The fund comes from taxes the residents pay.
Often the rights of the individual are at the heart of disputes over covenants. The ACLU got involved in the Bollon case in Crofton for that reason, according to ACLU lawyer Barbara Mello.
The Bollons put up their dish-shaped outside antenna because they could not receive UHF channels and VHF reception on certain channels was poor, Mello said. They have been joined in their suit, by their neighbors Peter G. and Susan Mandes, who also claim they get "very, very poor reception without their outside antenna, Mello said.
Mello said she will argue that, although her clients voluntarily gave up their right to an outside antenna when they moved to Crofton, they never intended to give up their right to receive communication from the outside.
Bollon, who spent $3,000 fighting the case, said, "I believe I'm right . . . If (the court says) I'm wrong, I'll take it down. He adds, that many of his neighbors support him in his fight.
In the Lafayette Park subdivision of Fairfax, the dispute over the Barnes' chimney has led to two heated community meetings.
At one of the meetings, Mrs. Barnes, a Spanish instructor at Georgetown University, stood up, near tears, and told the homeowners association that her family moved from Cuba 18 years ago believing that in America the rights of the individual would be protected.
The Barnes' chimney is a metal, free-standing chimney, which looks like a thick pipe running down the side of their townhouse. The rest of the chimneys in the neighborhood are brick.
The architectural control commitee maintains that the Barnes put up the chimney without first getting the committee's approval.
The Barnes say they never received a copy of the covenant and that the real estate agent who sold them the house even arranged for a discount on the chimney from a local company.
"This is an energy-saving device . . . It's not as though we've put up a bomb," said Wayne Barnes, a lawyer at the FBI.
"We're thinking of selling our house, we really are. But we've put every penny we have into this house," added Mrs. Barnes, who, with her husband, built a patio and Japanese garden behind the house.
On their weekends, the Barnes went to other subdivisions and took pictures of houses that had the same style chimney as they have. They also took slides of apparent covenant violations in their own neighborhood - uncut grass, an obtrusive fence - and showed them at one of the neighborhood meetings. In return the neighbors each got a chance to write what they thought of the Barnes chimney and what action they thought the homeowners association should take.
"It looks like a New York slum," one neighbor's assessment of the chimney.