A Maryland judge has ordered a Howard County couple either to expand their new house or tear it down, after ruling that the $81,000 modular house was too small for the subdivision where it was built.
Howard County Circuit Judge Robert F. Fischer ruled last month that the house violates a covenant on the property that sets minimum size requirements for dwellings in the Triadelphia Farms II subdivision in central Howard County.
The house, a modest ranch house, sits empty today, more than a year after it was finished, as the owners try to figure out how to comply with the judge's orders without asking their parents for financial help. "I was in shock when we first heard we had this problem," said Sharon Sowada, who owns the house with her husband Lawrence. "We were not told about the covenants when we bought the land, and now I don't know what to do. I guess that's what happens when you are naive."
For the Triadelphia Farms II Homeowners Association, which filed the suit after unsuccessfully trying to block construction of the house last year, the case has become something of an embarrassment.
"It looks like the homeowners' association is harassing this poor couple, but we would be very willing to work with them if they would only sit down and talk with us," said James K. Eagan III, the lawyer who is representing the homeowners association. "The case law is clear that we can't waive the covenant requirements because those covenants run with the land. We can't solve the problem for them. They will have to figure out what to do."
The Sowadas, who want to live in the house with their 11-month-old son Joey, now say that they are hoping to make modifications to it that will be acceptable to the homeowners association and meet the requirements of the covenants.
At the same time, they said they are planning to appeal the case if they cannot come to an agreement with the association.
It appears uncertain, however, that anything short of expanding the house by several hundred square feet will fulfill the judge's order, according to lawyers familiar with the case.
In the association's suit, the group claimed that the Sowadas' house did not meet the subdivision's covenant requirement that says one-story houses must have at least 1,500 square feet of living space on the main floor. The covenants also say that two-story houses in the subdivision must have at least 1,000 square feet of space on the main floor.
The Sowadas argued that the house had enough space on the main floor to meet the subdivision's requirements for a two-story house. The house qualifies as a two-story house, they said, because it has a basement they planned to use as living space.
The judge said, however, that because the building permit for the house lists the dwelling as a one-story house with a full basement, the floor below the main floor is a basement, "no matter what it may be called and what use it may be put to." Therefore, the house did not meet the size requirements, he found.
James Churko, vice president of the firm that built the home, Old World Builders of Howard County, testified at the trial that the house had 1,056 square feet of space on the main floor. But Fischer said that because neither the homeowners group nor the Sowadas presented evidence about the actual size of the house, he instead accepted the measurements on the building permit. That said the house had only 989 square feet of space on the main floor. Whether a two-story or one-story house, the judge said the dwelling did not meet either of the size requirements for the subdivision and must be expanded or removed.
The judge rejected the Sowadas' argument that they should not be held to the covenants because they did not know about them when they bought the land, saying that case law in Maryland holds purchasers of land responsible for any restrictions included in the legal title to the land.
The judge also rejected a plea by the Sowadas that the covenant be rendered unenforceable under the state's doctrine of comparative hardship. The Sowadas argued that there was no evidence that their house had decreased property values in the subdivision and that the hardship to their neighbors was very little compared with the great hardship they would suffer if ordered to remove or modify the house.
The court said that because the Sowadas were responsible for knowing about the covenants, they could not now claim a hardship that they had brought upon themselves.
Sharon Sowada said their insurance company has given them two months to work out a solution on the house, or face loss of their policy. She said she hopes an agreement can be reached by then.
"It has not been the most pleasant time for us," Sowada said. "You literally cannot see our house from the road. I don't know what the big deal is, but they apparently think it is important."