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December 27, 2002

Crofton avoids federal case over a fence

From: Baltimore Sun, MD - 27 Dec 2002

Local firm removes illegal structure for free; Home has new owners; Woman wanted to keep her child out of the street By Rona Kobell

Sun Staff
Originally published December 27, 2002

Crofton's lone front-yard fence - a simple wooden structure that incensed neighbors, touched off a civil lawsuit and prompted a housing discrimination investigation - is no more.

Workers from American Fence Co., looking to do a seasonal good deed, recently removed the fence from outside the home of Beate Kanamine, who more than two years ago built it despite community rules prohibiting front-yard fences.

Kanamine sold her house last month and moved out of the neighborhood, ending a dispute with the Crofton Civic Association that began in the summer of 2000 when she built the fence.

"It was an exhausting thing to have for a while," said neighbor Jean McKinley-Vargas, who was thrilled to return from a vacation in Houston and see that the fence and its many decorations had been removed. "People wondered if she ever would take it down."

Kanamine has said she built the fence to keep her hearing-impaired son, who was then 5 years old, from running into the street.

But neighbors said she wanted the fence for aesthetic reasons, pointing to the decorations that hung from its slats on Christmas and Halloween. They complained that Kanamine's son wasn't staying within the fenced boundaries anyway, even bringing photos to association meetings showing the boy playing in the street. Neighbors also questioned the nature of the boy's disabilities.

Kanamine called her neighbors "narrow-minded people" and lamented that the fence push turned so ugly.

"I am sad that there is still a community in this world that has so little compassion for a child with disabilities," she said.

The removal of the fence ends a bitter fight in Crofton, a growing community of about 20,000 in western Anne Arundel County. Once a gated community, Crofton now is a special-benefits tax district with its own police. It made headlines last summer when state officials discovered - and later poisoned - hundreds of non-native snakehead fish in a pond off Route 3.

The fence controversy began more than two years ago.

Initially, Kanamine asked the board's covenant committee for an exception for a fence. When the committee didn't rule in 60 days, as the covenants require, she assumed she had the go-ahead. But the committee said it did rule - it referred the matter to the board, which rejected the request after the fence was erected.

In response, Kanamine filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, saying the covenants violated the Fair Housing Act. Eager to avoid a federal discrimination trial, attorneys for Kanamine and the association announced in May of last year that Kanamine would drop all housing discrimination complaints and take the fence down, at her expense, by October.

But just after the settlement was announced, Kanamine learned that the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, which was investigating on behalf of HUD, had found "probable cause" of discrimination. Kanamine then said she never agreed to the settlement, and kept her fence up.

When the October deadline passed, the association sued Kanamine. By then, Kanamine had put her house on the market, insisting she would take it down before the sale went through.

"They made an issue out of something that really wasn't an issue anymore," she said.

The American Fence Co. owners read about the lawsuit and offered to remove it for free. It came down shortly after Thanksgiving.

"After Sept. 11, we were under the impression that we were supposed to be neighborly to each other," co-owner Steve Bloom said. "We felt the lady had been through enough."

Martin Simon, association vice president, said the community, too, had suffered. The group spent more than $6,000 fighting the fence - nearly depleting its covenant-enforcement budget - and endured criticism for its efforts to remove the fence.

"It was unfortunate that it took so long," he said. "No one was more frustrated than those who were dealing with it through the legal system."

Kanamine's home sold for $456,000 - a sign to her that the fence didn't hurt property values, as some had feared.

Simon said he hoped the Riley family, who moved in this month, wouldn't suffer any residual anger from neighbors.

On the contrary, Brian Riley said, the neighbors have welcomed the family enthusiastically. In more ways than one, the community is a lot different from their old neighborhood in Gaithersburg.

"Everybody in Crofton knows where we live," Riley said. "We tell them we bought the fence house. They're really glad we're here."

Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun