Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 17, 2013

Maryland Court Finds Restrictive Covenant on “Single Family” Occupancy Ambiguous, Declares Covenant Does Not Prohibit Occupancy by Multiple Unrelated Persons

Rodney and Melinda Long own two homes in the South Kaywood subdivision in Salisbury, Maryland.  One of the homes is occupied by a married couple with two children, while the other is occupied by three unrelated female undergraduate students enrolled at Salisbury University.  Properties in the South Kaywood subdivision are subject to a restrictive covenant which provides that the homes must never be used for any purpose except as a “single family residence.”  The South Kaywood Community Association, upon learning that one of the houses was home to three unrelated college students, sent a letter to the Longs informing them they were in violation of the restrictive covenant.

In response, the Longs filed a declaratory judgment action in the Circuit Court for Wicomico County, Maryland, requesting a declaration that the restrictive covenant did not require all individuals residing in their houses to be related by blood, marriage, or adoption, as contended by the Community Association.  The Association cross-claimed for a declaratory judgment, asking the court to declare that the restrictive covenant limited occupation of the residences to a single family unit.  Both sides moved for summary judgment but, rather than decide those motions, the Court held an evidentiary hearing on the matter.  After hearing evidence, the trial court concluded that the covenant did not require all residents be related by blood, marriage, or adoption.  The Court additionally held that allowing three unrelated college students to occupy the residence was not in violation of the restrictive covenant, and was consistent with Wicomico County Zoning Regulations.  The Community Association here appeals.

On appeal, the Court held that the trial court had erred in issuing a declaratory judgment that went beyond what the plaintiff had requested when it held that allowing three unrelated college students to live together in the subdivision was not a violation of the restrictive covenant and when it held that such use of the residence did not violate local zoning.  Since the plaintiff had merely requested declaratory judgment on the matter of whether the covenant restricted the use of the property to a single family unit related by blood, marriage, or adoption, the appellate court restricted its holding to that question alone.

The covenant’s reference to a “single family residence” was ambiguous on its own, because “single family” was not further defined, the court noted.  Under Maryland law, the use of extrinsic evidence to ascertain the meaning of a restrictive covenant can be used only where there is ambiguity.  If, even after reviewing extrinsic evidence, the answer is still not clear, Maryland law maintains a general policy in favor of the unrestricted use of property, so the meaning of the covenant will be somewhat strictly construed against the party seeking enforcement of the restriction.

In this case, the Court conducted a rather comprehensive investigation of case law from other jurisdictions in order to ascertain the meaning of “single family” or “family” generally, where zoning codes or restrictive covenants do not provide a clear definition.  At the evidentiary hearing, the Community Association introduced testimony from three longtime residents of the subdivision, each of whom gave a different, subjective opinion of what constituted a “single family.”  The phrase was also not clearly defined in the Wicomico Zoning Code which makes reference to, among other things, a “single housekeeping unit” (a phrase the court found to be equally unambiguous).  Given that no clear definition of a “single family” existed in case law, the local zoning code, or within the testimony introduced as extrinsic evidence, the Court held that the phrase was ambiguous, that the cohabitation of three unrelated college students did not clearly violate it, and that the covenant should be construed against the Community Association.

The appellate court vacated those portions of the declaratory judgment which went beyond the relief requested, and affirmed the declaratory judgment in favor of the Longs’ interpretation of the restrictive covenant.  The Court issued a judgment declaring that the restrictive covenant in the Longs’ deed did not prohibit them from renting to persons not related by blood, marriage, or adoption, and awarded costs to the Longs.

South Kaywood Community Association v. Long, 208 Md.App. 135 (Maryland Ct. of Special Appeals, 11/26/12)

The opinion can be accessed at: http://mdcourts.gov/opinions/cosa/2012/0691s10.pdf


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