Paul Torregrossa says he likes to think that his home is his castle. But two weeks ago Torregrossa, who belongs to a town house association in Calverton Townes near Beltsville, realized that the moat only conditionally belongs to him.
On Oct. 19, Torregrossa, a semiretired shoe repairman, came home and discovered that the two-foot wire mesh fence lining the perimeter of his property had been uprooted and piled on the patio.
The problem began with Torregrossa's installation of a three-foot high wire mesh fence in September to keep his poodle in and neighborhood children out.
The architectural control committee, which rules on homeowner proposals in this community of about 200 three-story town houses, demanded removal of the fence within seven days. Torregrossa followed that order, but then several weeks later he installed the two-foot fence in its place.
The architectural committee said that it based its action on Calverton's Declaration of Covenants, which defines the operation of the homeowners' association.
The five-member board of the homeowners' association warned Torregrossa on Oct. 10 that it would have the fence removed if he did not.
"We gave him plenty of warning," said Tom Dunn, who last week resigned as president of the board, citing health reasons. "But Mr. Torregrossa wouldn't abide by the board's decision, and we have the right to remove objects that don't meet the covenant's criteria if homeowners don't cooperate."
Torregrossa, who said he is determined to keep a fence, has now installed a smaller fence. But the homeowners' association has threatened to sue him if he does not remove it and the two sides are again at a standoff.
According to Washington lawyer William A. Marr Jr., who represents several homeowners' associations in the area, vague language in covenants has led to numerous disputes. But the trend is now for covenants to adopt more specific guidelines in an effort to stem the homeowner complaints.
"What we stress to people drawing these covenants is that they shouldn't restrict themselves to the degree that change isn't possible," Marr said. "On the other hand, guidelines are useful in that one doesn't have to seek approval for every little addition."
The association's removal of the fence, Torregrossa said, was baseless because the covenants do not specify what additions to a homeowner's property are permissible. Article VII of the covenants, drawn by the original developer in 1979, stipulates that changes to the property be in "harmony" with the existing flavor of Calverton Townes.
"But show me where it says you can't have a wire fence," Torregrossa said.
According to Dunn, the first fence installed by a homeowner at Calvertown Townes was made of wood and stood six feet high. "That, in effect, set the standard, and defined harmony," Dunn said.
Even with an established standard, homeowners must get every addition approved by the architectural committee before they can build.
"Not having guidelines leaves the door wide open for the architectural control committee or the association to decide what harmony means and has permitted it to rule inconsistently," said former architectural committee member Chuck Havland.
Havland was also ordered to remove a wire fence, almost a year after he installed it, but he has not yet done it.
"This fence has been sitting here for a year. Then suddenly I get this notice saying I have 48 hours to remove it," Havland said. "The board had typically been lax in these sorts of things. But now it's gotten out of hand."