It wasn't that Robert J. Test envied the $485,000 house across the street, he hated it.
"We didn't like the way it looked," said Test, an Alexandria resident who is suing the builder of a contemporary brick house across from his family's Williamsburg colonial. "It's hard to describe . . . . It has sort of a glass dome on it."
The new house, with its sunken living room, atrium-like interior, glass wall and 18-foot-high fireplace, is expected to be finished this summer. The foundation has been poured and the frame erected.
Test's lawsuit to block construction, filed earlier this month in Alexandria Circuit Court, claims that builder Barbara Ann Lubowicki did not comply with the neighborhood covenant, which says that new buildings must be in "conformity and harmony" with existing ones. Lubowicki, who plans to sell the house, argues that it is compatible with the neighborhood's architecture.
As homeowners pay increasingly large sums of money for their dream houses, more of them, particularly in new and affluent subdivisions, are forming architectural review boards and drafting neighborhood rules to try to keep away ugly fences, undesirable paint colors and unusual designs, according to housing officials.
"I can't tell you the number, but there's many more than 10 years ago," said Michael Sumichrast, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders. "It's no longer as simple as buying a house, you now have to buy into a community."
Douglas Kleine, director of research for the national Community Associations Institute in Alexandria, estimated that in the Washington area, 70 percent of the recently built subdivisions have covenants or rules forbidding items such as back yard laundry lines and satellite dishes.
"You have good taste and I do," he said, "but the idea is to protect yourself from others with bad taste." When people buy houses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, Kleine said, they worry "about the pink house next door."
In a recent celebrated covenant case in Fairfax County, Max Parsons successfully fought the Franklin Farm Architectural Review Board's decision to force him to take down his $3,000 satellite dish even though it was camouflaged as part of a picnic table. According to the community rules, satellite dishes were not allowed, but Parsons eventually agreed to settle the dispute before it went to court by lowering the dish in a specially made well in his back yard patio.
On Test's quiet southern Alexandria street, Coventry Lane, there were only four traditional colonial-style houses until Lubowicki bought the remaining vacant parcel and subdivided it into five lots in 1984.
In exchange for the neighbors' agreement to support her application for a building variance, Lubowicki agreed to set up an architectural control committee to uphold the neighborhood covenant. The committee consisted of Lubowicki, her husband Albert and Test.
"She and her husband said it was in harmony with the neighborhood and I disagreed," Test said of the house, "but they began building anyway."
Holding the blueprints in her hands like a rolled up treasure map, Lubowicki walked through the construction site last week and shook her head. "It sometimes makes you wonder what rights you have. It's a unique house, but if you were spending $485,000 for a house would you want a rectangle?"
Lubowicki, who says she has built contemporary houses in McLean and Vienna without complaint, said she spent three months fine-tuning details like the salmon-colored brick and the 60-foot sun deck. She likened the house to "a designer dress," more desirable than the traditional line.
But neighbor Donna Kramer says she moved to Coventry Lane "because the traditional house styles drew us here." Kramer agrees with Test that Lubowicki's house, while "not a cedar and glass monstrosity," is "too modern."
According to local lawyers and housing officials, Test will have a tough time proving that Lubowicki's house is not "in conformity or harmony" with the other houses because the covenant is so loosely worded and subjectively interpreted.
In a case resembling Test's that went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court in 1972, the neighbors won and the builder had to knock down his Arlington house.
The court ruled that the almost windowless, blocklike plywood house on 3845 Military Rd. violated the neighborhood covenant prohibiting "inharmonious" houses.