Our Say:
On another illegal house, county takes the right position


Sometimes it is impossible to have sympathy for people - even for a good son trying to take care of his 92-year-old mother.

L. Scott Donahoo was told that the septic system at his Pasadena house did not have the capacity to accommodate a cottage he wanted to build for his mother. But he started construction anyway and, once discovered, refused to stop when the county issued two stop-work orders.

He says the existing main house, which he and his sons use on weekends, was not suitable for his frail mother, and that only a small, detached cottage would work for the family. That the house would violate county laws and perhaps damage the environment was secondary as far as he was concerned.

So Mr. Donahoo built the house and his mother moved in while he appealed the county's ruling. Not only did he fail to persuade the county, he lost subsequent appeals in Circuit Court and now in the Court of Special Appeals.

Mr. Donahoo admits he broke the law, but says he has tried to work with county officials to settle their differences with him. Does he really expect anyone to think that, in this case, county officials are the bad guys?

The laws are there for a reason - namely to protect the environment. The county ruled that the house violated standards for stormwater management, setback, impervious area, elevation and septic capacity. Those are the same reasons routinely given to homeowners who can't get permits for sheds, decks and house additions. Does Mr. Donahoo really think his mother's cottage should be an exception? No one blames him if his mother's happiness means more to him than the environment does - but the law is the law.

The county and the courts took the right position on this case and we hope the next step is to make Mr. Donahoo tear down the house.

But the county's justifiable hard-line approach to Mr. Donahoo leaves us wondering why it has not been equally aggressive with Daryl Wagner, the developer who illegally built a house on Little Dobbins Island.

Perhaps the circumstances are different - but the laws aren't. If Mr. Wagner didn't get the necessary permits before building his island home, shouldn't he suffer the same consequences as Mr. Donahoo?

The reality is that these two men saw weaknesses in the inspection and enforcement process and gambled on county ignorance and impotence. That they were caught provides some hope that the system isn't completely broken. But now is the time for the county to show its mettle. If county officials are ultimately all bark and no bite, what sort of signal does that send to others contemplating doing the same thing?

These two cases have put the county's reputation on the line.

Published January 12, 2007, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.

(Revised Jan 2007)