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Code called a property rights issue

March 29, 2006|by TARA REILLY

WASHINGTON COUNTY

Washington County property owners on Tuesday blasted proposed revisions to a local code that regulates maintenance standards for homes, saying the revisions would infringe on their rights as property owners.

"Every time you pass a new law ... we lose just a little bit more liberty and property rights, and that kind of bothers me," said Tom Berry of Rohrersville.

Berry is president of Citizens to Protect Rights, a nonprofit organization created in 2003 to oppose the county's plan to rezone rural land. The plan limited the number of homes allowed in such areas.

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About 25 residents attended a public hearing Tuesday morning on the proposed revisions to the Washington County Livability Code.

Permits and Inspection Director Daniel DiVito said the code hasn't been updated since it was approved in 1988. He said state law requires that local jurisdictions adopt a code that complies with state regulations or enforce the state code. The proposed updated Livability Code meets all the minimum state requirements, he said.

The County Commissioners did not vote on the code Tuesday.

Thirteen residents spoke - all against the changes.

Most opposed a section that is proposed to be added to the code that regulates the cleanliness of owner-occupied homes and establishes maintenance standards for a home's exterior, such as the condition of the foundation, outside walls or roof.

The code states an exterior structure should be "in good repair and in a structurally sound condition."

The code also regulates the conditions of rental units.

The county would only enforce the code if it receives complaints about a property, he said. County officials would not be driving around looking for violations, DiVito said.

Violators could be fined $500 a day and face jail time.

Berry told the Washington County Commissioners that it's none of the county's business if he were to own and live in a home that had a broken window or some rotted wood.

"If my exterior structure doesn't look good ... it's none of your business," Berry said. "It's my house. If my awnings have a rip in them ... that's still none of your business."

"No one has a right to come in your house unless you're doing something against the law," said Neil Fales of Keedysville. "Aren't we supposed to have the pursuit of happiness? Why should somebody else tell us what makes us happy? If you guys pass this, election time's coming."

Rohrersville resident Richard Barthlow said it wouldn't be right for someone to tell him what to do with his house, and with medical-related expenses for himself and his wife, he can't afford a $500-a-day fine.

"Why do they got to come in my backyard and tell me what I got to do?" Barthlow said.

Gerald Ditto of Clear Spring asked what prompted the proposed changes to the code.

"Is it just a law to keep the county pretty, or is it a law to entice more development to the county?" Ditto said.

Kirke Martin of Keedysville said he feared new residents moving into the county and building expensive homes would complain about the homes of longtime county residents for not being "up to scale."

"All they have to do is say a house is not up to code," Martin said. "Rather than protecting the citizens, it's hurting them. Let's not push our residents away ..."

Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said at the meeting he also thought the revisions would infringe upon property rights. He said some residents feared they would lose their homes because they couldn't afford to keep the properties up to code.

Commissioner John C. Munson said after the meeting he understood the county wanting to regulate rental units to protect tenants, but he did not support the proposed section regulating owner-occupied homes.

He said he would not vote for the updated code unless that section is removed.

"That's going too far," Munson said, adding that federal, state and local governments "intrude too much on people's lives."

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