Demolish home or move it, couple told

Chevy Chase homeowners say they’re victims of backlash against mansionization and they blame the county for mistakes

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

For more, see Neighbor dispute puts focus on rebuilding issue.

Click here to enlarge this photo
Susan Whitney-Wilkerson⁄The Gazette
Marianne Duffy and daughter Claire, 2, stand outside their nearly built home on Thornapple Street.

A Chevy Chase couple has been ordered by the county to demolish their partially renovated home — or to move it 1.7 feet back from the property line.

Marc and Marianne Duffy believe they are victims of a backlash against oversized homes being squeezed into small lots in older neighborhoods. They say they are being punished for a county agency’s mistakes.

Neighbors who opposed the construction believe the Duffy’s problems are their own creation.

Marc Duffy, an attorney, and Marianne Duffy, a stay-at-home mom and former attorney, served as their own general contractors on the project.

‘‘Three times my husband and I relied on the county’s advice,” Marianne Duffy said. ‘‘When we needed advice, authorization or information about county laws and county permits and county processes, we went to the county.”

The Duffys purchased their house on Thornapple Street in May 2004 for $725,000. After realizing the 1923 house was more run-down than they thought, Duffy said she and her husband decided to renovate and put an addition on the rear of the house. The 1,700-square-foot house became a 2,400 square-foot house.

‘‘We didn’t change the footprint of the house,” she said. ‘‘We went from a three-bedroom, two-bath house to a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath house.”

The Department of Permitting Services issued permits for the addition in January 2005 and construction on the project began soon after.

The trouble started when the construction workers found severe damage in the walls of the house, Duffy said. For 25 years, rainwater had leaked through the gutters on the roof and into the walls and framing of the house leaving behind black mold in the first and second stories, Duffy said. As a result, the walls were unlikely to support the second floor addition and would have to be replaced.

Under county law, if more than 50 percent of the walls are removed, the house project is considered a new home, not a renovation. But when she consulted the Department of Permitting Services, Duffy said, she was told that she did not need a new permit because the house had the same footprint.

‘‘We presumed we could rely not only on the advice but the authorizations they provided,” Duffy said.

By the time the demolition was complete, all that remained of the house was the first-floor fireplace. Michael Eig, an attorney who lives a few houses down on Thornapple Street, said he was the first to call the county and complain about the project in June 2005.

‘‘The first thing that got my attention was the first thing that got everybody else’s attention,” Eig said. ‘‘I drove down the street and the house just wasn’t there anymore.”

The department sent out a building inspector to take a closer look at the project and issued a temporary order halting construction. Duffy went to the department and filed for a new building permit, which the department approved on June 9.

On June 10, a county zoning inspector issued a second stop-work order, informing the Duffys that the department had erred in issuing the new permit because the house must conform to new zoning laws.

As a result, the zoning inspector said, the footprint of the house had to be moved 7 feet back from where it sat for 82 years, unless the Duffys were able to obtain a special exception from the Montgomery County Board of Appeals.

‘‘Their lot can accommodate the home they wish to build, however, not where they currently propose to build it,” Department of Permitting Services Director Robert Hubbard said in a written statement. ‘‘We recognize the difficulties this situation presents for the Duffys and want to work with them on a mutually acceptable resolution. However, it is the responsibility of my agency to ensure that our zoning laws are followed and complied with.”

New information this week from the Department of Permitting Services may further complicate the case.

On Tuesday, the Duffys received written notification from the department that it erred in its most recent ruling against their permit for new construction. Instead of requiring a 7-foot exception, they now require a 1.7-foot exception. With this new information, they may go back to the appeals board.

During a five-day hearing last month, attorney David Brown represented Thornapple Street neighbors — Michael and Emily Eig, William Hamilton and Jane Mayer, Michael Shulman and Jacqueline Judd, and Kristen Gerlach — in opposition to the Duffys’ request. The group testified that the Duffys tried to circumvent county laws by building beyond what the law allows.

‘‘Do I care about the principle of 5 feet or 7 feet? Of course not,” Eig said in a phone interview. ‘‘I do care about the fact that what they’ve done by putting up those new walls is completely obliterate their neighbors’ air, sun and light and flooded their basement ... because the Duffy’s roof is pouring water into it.”

Mayer and Hamilton live next door to the Duffys.

‘‘We’ve supported the county in doing what it is supposed to do,” Mayer said in a phone interview Monday. ‘‘The law is impartial, nobody wants any special treatment here. I just don’t understand why the laws should be bent to provide special treatment to one family at the expense of another.”

The board voted to deny the appeal, leaving the Duffys with the option of physically moving the house or tearing it down and starting over. Starting from scratch and losing the $100,000 already spent on construction and $50,000 in legal fees, Duffy said, will bankrupt them.

Duffy said the next step is to appeal the board’s decision to the Montgomery County Circuit Court.

‘‘We didn’t set out to exploit a loophole,” Duffy said. ‘‘We had to seek a variance and we got permission for everything we did.”