It was just a swing set. A $1,500 custom-designed swing set that doubles as a wisteria arbor in a posh Washington-area neighborhood, but just a swing set.
Still, the monkey bars and three swings Bill Maloni erected for his six grandchildren in the back yard of his Chevy Chase Village home have drawn ire. Months after the swing set went up last spring, Maloni was cited for a code violation, which triggered three hearings, a vote by the village’s Board of Managers and, now, possible litigation.
“I continue to hope that logic will prevail,” Maloni said. “But I doubt it.”
This wealthy enclave — a tree-lined, 0.4-square-mile area just across the District line in Montgomery County — is governed by an elected seven-member board. It is not the first time the village and surrounding neighborhoods have squabbled with residents over complaints that some might deem trivial — and it is hardly alone in such disputes.
In the case of Maloni, village officials simply say that he is obligated to abide by the same regulations as the community’s 2,000 other residents.
Maloni, who moved to his Chevy Chase Village home 24 years ago, said a village official noted the swing set on a walk through the neighborhood. The problem: The 15-foot-long, 7-foot-tall swing set violates the covenant for Maloni’s property — rules governing how the property, built in the early 1900s, should be used.
The play structure was built within a 25-foot area, between Maloni’s house and the street, that was supposed to remain free of such accoutrements.
The swing set had to go, the village decided last month.
“The village is interested in compliance. . . . The rules apply to everybody. They apply them equally,” said Suellen Ferguson, an attorney who represents Chevy Chase Village in the case.
Ferguson said the swing set initially was described as an “arbor” in documents his family submitted requesting a variance. Then, things got a little wild.
“Time went on, swings started being attached,” she said. “It became a play structure.”
Gary Crockett, Chevy Chase Village’s building officer, declined to comment on the case.
A review of 79 pages of public documents detailing the swing set’s troubled history and uncertain future show that the village has remained steadfast in its opposition.
“The Board historically holds a very firm stance regarding the covenants,” Ellen Sands, who is the permitting and code enforcement coordinator for the village, wrote in a letter to Maloni dated Dec. 8, 2015. One example: a controversial basketball net.
“Recently, the Board denied a variance request filed by an applicant who sought to maintain a freestanding basketball hoop which had been installed — without the applicable Building Permit,” Sands wrote. “The Board required that the Applicant remove the basketball hoop within a stated timeframe.”
Maloni said many of his neighbors support the swing set. Some, including a church across the street, have submitted letters to the village on his behalf.
“All Saints Church would be in favor of allowing the arbor/play structure to remain in its current form,” the Rev. Edward T. Kelaher, the church’s rector, wrote in a March 10 letter.
“It does not trouble or offend us in the least, presents no unfavorable appearance, and seems most common and reasonable for its purposes and location.”
At a contentious April 11 meeting, Maloni — bolstered by the presence of his son, an engineer working on the Capitol Crossing project in the District — tried to present the case that the village should turn a blind eye to the swing set.
“I feel I’ve been patronized, stiff-armed, told ‘no’ and received very little of the famous ‘neighborhood cooperation’ the chairman claims exists and is manifest,” Maloni said, according to a recording of the meeting. “Other than chop it down or cut it into two pieces, nobody from the village has reached out to me or my family to suggest a way to keep this innocuous swing set in place and employ it to do what they all do . . . allow kids to play and have fun in a carefree, safe atmosphere.”
Ferguson said Maloni was presented with alternatives that he rejected. The swing set is anchored in concrete, for example, but Ferguson said the village might accept one anchored in another way.
(Indeed, the swing set stands where a cheaper Fisher-Price model once stood.)
“If it’s really an arbor, it depends on the size of it,” Ferguson said. “There are ways to have a play structure that’s not considered to be a violation of a covenant if it’s not permanently anchored.”
Part of Maloni’s case was built upon the argument that an addition to his house already sits on the 25-foot setback, and has for more than two decades. The house was that way when he bought it.
“It’s been that way for 24-plus years,” engineer Billy Maloni Jr. said.
But Crockett, the village’s building officer, said during the meeting it did not matter that a former resident had found a way around the covenant at some time in the past.
“That’s not how it works,” he said. “It’s not like a touchdown, where if you break the plane at all, then everything is good.”
Crockett supported Maloni’s variance in a losing 5-to-2 vote. But another member of the Board of Managers added: “ ‘We want to encroach further because we’ve already encroached some.’ That’s not a really good argument on your part.”
Ferguson, the village’s attorney, said Maloni cannot have what he wants just because he wants it. All residents must adhere to the same rules, she said.
“He’s asking to do something that is also against something in his deed,” Ferguson said.
What happens next is unclear. Maloni’s request for a variance was denied and he has 30 days after receiving official notice of the decision to bring his property into compliance, but the swing set still stands.
He said he is considering a lawsuit (the village spent more than $400,000 in a court battle six years ago over a public right-of-way).
It’s not that Maloni — who displays vintage World War II lead soldiers, antique signs and historic photographs on his home’s walls — has no respect for the past, he said. It’s just that all the hubbub is about a “kid’s toy.”
“Their point is not invalid,” he said. “But at some point it’s impractical and not neighbor-friendly.”
Correction: This story has been changed to reflect that a variance was voted down by a vote of 5-2. It originally reported the vote as being 7-2.