ANNAPOLIS, AUG. 11 -- It was just over three years ago that Bianca Lavies' new rose trellis was built and her problems began.
The plants were hardly in bloom when the city's Historic District Commission discovered they were growing not on the regulation white painted wood, but over slats of simulated wood-grain white plastic. And as the roses and evergreen vines flourished and flowered and all but hid the plastic trellis, the legal battle grew, too.
Tonight, three years and two court cases later, the commission voted 2 to 1 to let Lavies keep her trellis, but not before one member spoke sternly on the perils of plastic.
Plastics are fine for Art Deco historic districts, said Naomi Kinard, who voted against the trellis three years ago and again tonight. "But it's not appropriate in the Annapolis Historic District," she said. "It's a small, fragile area, one-third of a square mile, where effects in one area soon mushroom into other areas." Kinard added that the roses may one day fall into neglect and expose the plastic.
Lavies said she believed the retirement of some former commissioners, the threat of further legal appeals and the last-minute support of Annapolis Mayor Dennis Callahan helped swing the case in her favor. "It's such a shock," she said after the vote.
To Lavies, the plastic lattice was a beautiful addition to her house, and was inspired by a photograph of a woman dressed in white standing before a rose trellis that appeared on the cover of the May 15, 1913, issue of Vogue magazine.
When she came across the old magazine, she said, "I thought, what a lovely thing -- that's what I want to do with that ugly porch."
But to the appointed Historic District Commission, which has the right to veto building additions and alterations in the large section of downtown Annapolis that comprises the city's historic district, white plastic proved to be a serious and controversial issue.
When the commission first debated the trellis back in 1984, many of Lavies' neighbors testified that the plastic looked like wood. And Lavies pointed out that if she took the trellis down, people walking past her three-story 19th century house near the U.S. Naval Academy wall would get to look at her drainpipes and electricity meter instead of roses.
But some commissioners said they could easily tell the trellis was made of plastic. "When you go to look at it, it is not an appropriate material for use in the historic district," said commissioner Kinard, according to court records. And plastic, the commission declared after voting 3 to 1 against the trellis three years ago, is "the antithesis of the traditional values and character embodied in our past." They publicly invited Lavies to switch to real wood.
Lavies said she feared rot and termites, and she did not want to tear her roses down every time the trellis needed painting. So Lavies appealed to the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court. Judge Raymond Thieme called the commission's decision "arbitrary and capricious" and said Lavies could keep her simulated wood lattice.
But then the commission appealed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. In April -- as Lavies' roses bloomed red, white and purple -- the state's second-highest appeals court agreed that few people seemed to notice that the trellis was plastic, and agreed that Lavies' house has "no historical significance" anyway. But the court said there were grounds for debate, so the commission was legally entitled to order it removed.
Lavies has appealed to the state's highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals, although that appeal is made unnecessary by tonight's commission vote.
Last month, Mayor Callahan wrote to the commission and asked it to reconsider Lavies' trellis, noting that most citizens saw the dispute as an example of "a local bureaucracy adhering too closely to the letter of the law at the expense of equity and fairness."
"The concern about the trellis has become completely academic, because it's completely covered in roses," Callahan said today. "I think that the Historic District Commission has just chosen the wrong battle to fight. This is doing nobody any good."