Property Rights and Wrongs - NBC4 Washington

Property Rights and Wrongs

Who really owns your property?



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    When is your property not your property?

    The Washington Post recently reported on a Silver Spring couple that was informed by Montgomery County last year “that by mowing their grass, they were breaking the law.” A garden bed, basketball hoop, and part of their driveway would all have to be removed because “almost all of their back yard…was part of a forest conservation plan agreed to by the property’s previous owner.”

    In the fine print of their home purchase documents was an “ironclad addendum to their deed, attached for perpetuity, forbade them to mow, dig, erect fences or pull weeds.” They were fined $2,500 by the county -- which now “oversees almost 2,500 conservation easements on private property,” the Post reports.

    In the District, developer Brian Ortiz is being denied occupancy permits for a house on 12th Street NW because the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board isn’t happy with the changes he made. Ortiz told Washington Business Journal, “Everything in this project has been done to approved plans. What I did was improve the neighborhood.”

    If the house is such an important piece of history, he wonders, why didn’t the District enforce codes on its previous owner? “It was a burnt-out shell,” he said. Ortiz says changes demanded by the review board will cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    For its part, the board says “tangible and intangible historic fabric and meaning were needlessly destroyed” by Ortiz’s improvements.

    These episodes remind me of the time two years back when I received a large packet in the mail from the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Office of Civil Infractions. It said my wife and I would be required to pay a fine of $2,000 for work illegally done without permit on our property.

    That was odd, since we had not done any work on our property.

    At the back of the packet was a series of pictures, with notations by a DCRA, of a property that was clearly not ours. The inspector noted “illeagle” work, including a fence that was “to high” and a post that went “overe” a property line. I did a bit of sleuthing and discovered the property in question was actually a block away.

    We contacted DCRA by phone and got an answering machine. I e-mailed the agency and got no reply. After several days of calls and the intervention of my councilmember, the matter was resolved -- but not until after one officious bureaucrat told us, “If the complainant feels that he was wrongly cited, he has to go the hearing to challenge this matter.”

    Certainly there is a public interest in protecting the environment, and in protecting historic structures. But what all three of these cases have in common is that the burden of proof was placed not on the government, but on the people who actually own the property. That’s an attitude in need of some renovation.

    Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC