Submitted: February 10, 2015
David E. Matlusky, Esquire The Matlusky Firm, LLC
Shawn P. Tucker, Esquire Lindsay B. Orr, Esquire Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP
This is a dispute between neighbors in a subdivision regarding whether a structure the respondents built on their property violates deed restrictions governing the subdivision. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The undisputed facts show the structure at issue is a playhouse, which was not prohibited by the deed restrictions, and which was approved "by default" by the architectural review committee. I therefore recommend that the Court enter judgment in favor of the respondents. Factual disputes regarding the respondents' counterclaim preclude judgment before trial on that claim.
The parties are next-door neighbors in a subdivision known as Ramsey Ridge in Hockessin, Delaware. The petitioner, Robert Flanagan ("Mr. Flanagan"), filed this action against the respondents, Joseph and Cynthia Amon ("Mr. and Mrs. Amon"), after the Amons put a structure on their property that Mr. Flanagan contends is a shed prohibited by the deed restrictions that govern Ramsey Ridge. The parties' dispute is about the nature of the structure and whether it violates the deed restrictions.
Ramsey Ridge is governed by the Amended and Restated Declaration of Restrictions Applicable to Ramsey Ridge (the "Restrictions"), which were adopted by the Ramsey Ridge Service Corporation (the "RRSC") and recorded with the New Castle County Recorder of Deeds in 1992. The RRSC is a maintenance corporation comprised of the owners of the lots in Ramsey Ridge. The RRSC is governed by a board of directors elected annually by the property owners of Ramsey Ridge.
As is typical of residential subdivisions, the Restrictions limit the type of structures property owners in Ramsey Ridge may add to their property. Pertinent to the issues in this case, Section IV(5) of the Restrictions provides:
TRAILERS, STRUCTURES, ETC.: There shall not be permitted, erected, nor maintained upon LAND, any trailer, manufactured transportable housing unit or mobile home, tent, shack, shed, storage building, barn, stable, cattleyard, hog pen, fowlyard, above ground pool, or other building of any nature or description except a residence, garage and/or ancillary structure constructed and maintained in accordance with this DECLARATION.
The Restrictions further clarify that the construction of any building, not otherwise prohibited by the Restrictions, must be approved by the Architectural Review Committee (the "ARC"). The ARC is a three-member committee elected by the property owners and selected from the members of the RRSC board. The Restrictions give the ARC the authority to grant and deny approvals and consents as required. An owner's request for ARC approval is subject to a 30 day review period. If the ARC does not respond within 30 days after receipt of an approval request, the request is deemed approved by the ARC.
In February 2011, Mr. Amon purchased a shed with the intent of converting it to a playhouse for his grandchildren. In April 2011, after the shed was delivered, Mr. Amon contacted the president of the RRSC to discuss his plans. Although he was advised to submit a request for ARC approval, Mr. Amon did not submit a request for approval before the structure was installed on his property. Mr. Flanagan immediately complained about the structure, and about a fence the Amons later added. In response to that complaint, the RRSC board notified the Amons that they were in violation of the Restrictions. Mr. and Mrs. Amon then submitted the required "ARC Change Request Form" seeking approval of the structure and proposed landscaping. The Amons' initial request was rejected by the ARC, but the Amons engaged in additional discussions with the ARC and submitted revised requests. Among the revisions to the Amons' plan were changes to the proposed landscaping and screening.
In January 2012, the Amons met with members of the ARC to discuss changes to the plan, including increasing screening and removing a rose arbor to which the committee objected. The Amons' last Change Request Form was submitted to the ARC on February 20, 2012. The ARC did not respond to that Change Request Form at any point. Two months later, the RRSC board met and discussed, among other things, the Amons' work on their property. The minutes of the meeting reflect that the board concluded that the Amons' structure - which the minutes describe as a shed - violated the Restrictions, but the board voted not to pursue any action against the Amons. 
Mr. Flanagan was not satisfied with the RRSC board's decision, and promptly launched a campaign to rally the other property owners in Ramsey Ridge to take action to remedy what Mr. Flanagan viewed as a glaring violation of the Restrictions. To that end, Mr. Flanagan (1) published and distributed to each property owner a "Ramsey Ridge Community Bulletin" (the "Bulletin") detailing Mr. Flanagan's views about the "shed" on the Amons' property, (2) developed a website called stopsheds.com containing largely the same material as the Bulletin (the "Website"), and (3) placed "Save Ramsey Ridge" signs around the neighborhood, which directed people to visit the Website. The substance of Mr. Flanagan's message was that: (1) Mr. Amon placed a "large storage shed" on his property, along with a fence, both of which are visible from the street and from neighbors' yards, (2) Mr. Amon did not seek permission from the ARC before making these additions to his property, (3) the ARC asked Mr. Amon to remove the fence and shed, which Mr. Amon refused to do, and yet (4) the RRSC board had resolved not to enforce the Restrictions against Mr. Amon. Mr. Flanagan argued that Ramsey Ridge "must have consistent enforcement of the [Restrictions] for them to be enforceable, " and that, if the neighborhood did not take action, "ALL the deed restrictions are worthless."Mr. Flanagan urged his neighbors to attend the Ramsey ...