The Frederick city zoning appeals board this week reversed a decision that would have required a builder to tear down a house that was built five feet too close to the street after hearing a plea for "a little Christmas spirit" from the buyers, who said the original ruling would have left them with no place to live.

"Five feet may seem a lot to you, but it doesn't mean a lot to me when we don't have a place to go to," Joann White, the home buyer, told the board. "I understand that you have rules and regulations, but maybe you can bend them a little this time."

The board voted unanimously last month to deny a request by the builder, Washington Homes Inc., for a five-foot variance for the house in the Fredericktowne Village subdivision.

Because of a surveying error, the four-bedroom single-family house was mistakenly built 20 feet from the street instead of the required 25-foot distance, according to Robert Yateman, a Washington Homes official.

The board ordered the company to remove five feet from the front of the house after rejecting the company's contention that it would suffer a serious financial loss in doing so.

Company officials claimed that the offending parts, the front porch and the garage, were integral parts of the house, and that it would have to tear down and rebuild the $122,000 home at a cost of $147,000.

But one member said it wasn't the board's responsibility to "correct somebody else's economic hardships." Other members said they were trying to send a strong message that they would no longer tolerate such mistakes, which they said are growing more common.

The board's ruling left White, her husband, Robert, and their daughter, Dawn, without a place to live. White said she and her husband bought their new house in August and sold their old house in October.

Krista McGowan, the Whites' attorney, told the board that the Whites had agreed to settle with their buyers and to move to their new home on Jan. 11. Consequently, they did not have other housing arrangements, McGowan said.

White said Washington Homes officials did not tell them about the problem until late November, even though zoning board records show that the company knew about the problem in September.

McGowan said the lack of notice prevented the Whites from finding another house in time.

She acknowledged that the Whites could rent an apartment, but called that alternative a hardship because they probably would have to sign a one-year lease.

After hearing of the Whites' plight, the board decided to grant a zoning variance.

Such variances, normally granted only if developers apply for them before building a house, are used to stagger the sizes of yards and improve a neighborhood's appearance.

It was the first time the board has approved such a variance after construction.

Donald Quigley, a board member, acknowledged that the zoning provision that permits staggered front-yard setbacks "is not supposed to be a remedy," and said, "Perhaps using it was stretching things a bit. But it was an equitable way of using that part of the ordinance" in this instance.

"One couldn't help but be sympathetic with the Whites' situation," he said.

Besides, Quigley noted, "Nobody wanted to play Scrooge and bring the house down, especially at Christmas time."