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Couple told to raze Chevy Chase home

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

A couple who bought and renovated an 82-year-old house in Chevy Chase must tear it down because Montgomery County officials erred in approving the project.

Marianne and Marc Duffy said the oversight was pointed out by some high-powered neighbors who pressured the officials into rescinding approval, which will force the Duffys into bankruptcy and to demolish their $725,000 home in the 3700 block of Thornapple Street.

"Our neighbors complained, then county officials informed us that they issued our building permits in error and that we'd have to seek a variance," Mrs. Duffy said. "This is after a county official testified under oath at hearings that we were truthful and forthcoming, and that they and the permitting office fully understood what it was approving."

Robert Hubbard, director of the Department of Permitting Services, said that the Duffys were issued permits for a renovation but that officials later determined they needed additional approvals from the county Board of Appeals. The first permit was issued January 2005, and construction was stopped June 9, 2005, the Duffys said.

Mr. Hubbard also said the agency has worked with the Duffys throughout the process and "is prepared to continue to be of assistance."

County officials deferred further inquiries -- including a call to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate -- to the Department of Permitting Services.

The Duffys sold their Bethesda home for $707,000 in November 2004, then purchased the one in Chevy Chase for $725,000, according to records.

The couple received the renovation permits to put a two-story addition at the rear of the home. But problems quickly arose when crews found mold, wood rot and termite damage, making additional construction necessary.

The damage was so extensive that more than 50 percent of the existing walls were removed, which meant the building should have been classified as a new home and subject to different zoning regulations.

The county granted the couple new permits, then voided them and halted construction when neighbors pointed out the house was originally built seven feet too close to the street and two feet too close to the home of William Hamilton, an editor at the Washington Post, and his wife, Jane Mayer, a staff writer for the New Yorker.

Mr. Hamilton and Mrs. Mayer; ABC News reporter Jackie Judd; and prominent lawyer Michael Eig and his wife, Emily, are among those who have complained about the Duffys' home.

Kristin Gerlach, owner of Gerlach Real Estate Inc., also testified against them.

The Duffys argued that the home would have the same dimensions as it had before construction. Still, they filed a request for a variance to continue the renovation. The Board of Appeals denied the request March 1.

"We've been paying mortgage and rent for over a year," said Mrs. Duffy, who lives with her husband and their two young daughters in a nearby apartment. "If we have to tear it down and [start over], it will bankrupt us. We will lose everything."

David W. Brown, the neighbors' attorney, said the case is about enforcing zoning regulations.

"My clients were simply not willing to overlook violations of the law, and even if they were, the request for a variance still likely would have been denied," said Mr. Brown, who also represented the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee -- a group of homeowners that in the summer exposed numerous building violations in the community and brought them to the county's attention.

He said the Duffys tried to manipulate neighbors by explaining their plight in handwritten letters, one of which included their daughters' signatures and an outline of the youngest's handprint.

"They have a long and tearful story, but it had no bearing on the matter," Mr. Brown said. "I don't know why they felt they were entitled to not follow" zoning laws.

The Duffys say they have spent $150,000 on renovations and $50,000 in lawyer fees and must decide whether to appeal the ruling in court.

"We received four different building permits from Montgomery County to renovate our home," Mrs. Duffy said. "I've already defended my property rights, to the tune of $50,000. This is a mess, and my husband and I didn't make it a mess."

Mrs. Duffy said the Eigs have supported a similar variance request from another neighbor.

She acknowledged having a minor dispute about overgrown shrubbery with Mr. Hamilton and Mrs. Mayer -- the only neighbors in opposition to the variance with whom the Duffys share a property line.

Mrs. Duffy also scoffed at detractors' accusations that her family has polarized the neighborhood.

"We had only lived there six months before" having to move out, she said. "I don't think anyone would have a [vendetta]. We barely got to know anybody."be of assistance."

County officials deferred further inquiries -- including a call to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate -- to the Department of Permitting Services.

The Duffys sold their Bethesda home for $707,000 in November 2004, then purchased the one in Chevy Chase for $725,000, according to records.

The couple received the renovation permits to put a two-story addition at the rear of the home. But problems quickly arose when crews found mold, wood rot and termite damage, making additional construction necessary.

The damage was so extensive that more than 50 percent of the existing walls were removed, which meant the building should have been classified as a new home and subject to different zoning regulations.

The county granted the couple new permits, then voided them and halted construction when neighbors pointed out the house was originally built seven feet too close to the street and two feet too close to the home of William Hamilton, an editor at the Washington Post, and his wife, Jane Mayer, a staff writer for the New Yorker.

Mr. Hamilton and Mrs. Mayer; ABC News reporter Jackie Judd; and prominent lawyer Michael Eig and his wife, Emily, are among those who have complained about the Duffys' home.

Kristin Gerlach, owner of Gerlach Real Estate Inc., also testified against them.

The Duffys argued that the home would have the same dimensions as it had before construction. Still, they filed a request for a variance to continue the renovation. The Board of Appeals denied the request March 1.

"We've been paying mortgage and rent for over a year," said Mrs. Duffy, who lives with her husband and their two young daughters in a nearby apartment. "If we have to tear it down and [start over], it will bankrupt us. We will lose everything."

David W. Brown, the neighbors' attorney, said the case is about enforcing zoning regulations.

"My clients were simply not willing to overlook violations of the law, and even if they were, the request for a variance still likely would have been denied," said Mr. Brown, who also represented the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee -- a group of homeowners that in the summer exposed numerous building violations in the community and brought them to the county's attention.

He said the Duffys tried to manipulate neighbors by explaining their plight in handwritten letters, one of which included their daughters' signatures and an outline of the youngest's handprint.

"They have a long and tearful story, but it had no bearing on the matter," Mr. Brown said. "I don't know why they felt they were entitled to not follow" zoning laws.

The Duffys say they have spent $150,000 on renovations and $50,000 in lawyer fees and must decide whether to appeal the ruling in court.

"We received four different building permits from Montgomery County to renovate our home," Mrs. Duffy said. "I've already defended my property rights, to the tune of $50,000. This is a mess, and my husband and I didn't make it a mess."

Mrs. Duffy said the Eigs have supported a similar variance request from another neighbor.

She acknowledged having a minor dispute about overgrown shrubbery with Mr. Hamilton and Mrs. Mayer -- the only neighbors in opposition to the variance with whom the Duffys share a property line.

Mrs. Duffy also scoffed at detractors' accusations that her family has polarized the neighborhood.

"We had only lived there six months before" having to move out, she said. "I don't think anyone would have a [vendetta]. We barely got to know anybody."