A Gaithersburg woman’s dispute over a backyard bungalow has gone from city hall to a county courthouse and now to U.S. District Court.
Darline Bell-Zuccarelli wanted to build a 192-square-foot miniature home in the back of her Woodland Road home for her daughter but the city of Gaithersburg condemned it.
In a suit filed March 10, she alleges the city maliciously condemned the structure without following due process. She is seeking damages in excess of $75,000, according to case documents.
Ultimately, she said she hopes the case will lead to the reversal of the condemnation, and that with the exception of making electrical fixes, the structure will be allowed to remain the way it is.
On April 21, Gaithersburg transferred the case from Montgomery County Circuit Court to U.S. District Court because Bell-Zuccarelli was alleging constitutional violations, Gaithersburg City Attorney Lynn Board said in an email to The Gazette. Victoria Shearer, an attorney with Baltimore firm Karpinski, Colaresi and Karp, is now representing the city in the case. She could not be reached for comment Monday.
Last January, a city inspector condemned the structure after reading about it in a December edition of The Gazette. The inspector had not conducted a physical inspection before issuing the condemnation order.
Bell-Zuccarelli, who is representing herself in the court case, is claiming that since city staff did not come out to inspect the structure in person before condemning it on Jan. 16, the municipality violated her 14th Amendment right to due process.
Bell-Zuccarelli first decided to construct the structure in 2010 to help her daughter who was struggling to afford her own place to live. Bell-Zuccarelli and her husband spent about one year and $15,000 to build the small building.
The structure has a living room, kitchenette, sleeping loft, bathroom and porch. It also has electricity, air conditioning and heat, and is set up for plumbing, according to Bell-Zuccarelli.
In the months preceding the condemnation, the tiny house had been sitting unoccupied in the backyard while Bell-Zuccarelli saved up to pay for the water company’s charge to connect its pipes to those on the street, which was expected to cost about $15,000.
After the condemnation, Wes Burnette, the city’s permits and inspections division chief, said he thought the structure had been modified without permission since it was first approved and that the zoning law does not permit more than one dwelling unit on a lot in that community.
Burnette had said that the city reached that conclusion based on the newspaper coverage, not by visiting the site.
Several days later, Burnette visited Bell-Zuccarelli’s tiny house and cited several projects that were completed without proper permits, including the staircase, railings on the staircase and loft, extra kitchen cabinets, the kitchen sink and plumbing work, the exterior deck, extra electrical outlets and fixtures, and the bathroom toilet, shower and sink.
None of the above issues have been fixed because Bell-Zuccarelli said she is not exactly sure what must be done and if they are even permitted under the city’s code.
“I’m not doing anything because I’m confused about what they want me to do,” she said.
Bell-Zuccarelli admitted that she forgot to look into the community’s zoning laws, but that she built the house to the exact specifications outlined in her blueprints, which were approved by the city in June 2012. She said she also thought she had all the necessary permits and inspections as required by the city.
She said she doesn’t remember if she ever told city inspectors her intention for the structure while it was being built, but that it shouldn’t matter now because it will never have occupants because the zoning laws prohibits that.
“I’m not sure if I talked about every plan because I didn’t know I had to talk about every plan,” she said. “What difference would it make what it looks like if no one is living in it?”
She said she is still fighting to keep it as a very nice shed.
“I’m not mad that I can’t use it as a house,” she said. “I’m mad now that I can’t even use it as a shed. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have to defend this.”