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Chester County Press

Couple embroiled in legal issue with neighbors

06/14/2016 12:06PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

Bucktoe Manor in Avondale, built in 2001, is a residential subdivision of detached, single-family homes that upon first visit, conjures up the words “bucolic,” “peaceful” and “serene.” All along the winding roads of the community, each home seems to have created its own individual identity, and each property offers a well-manicured sprawl of green, dotted with just a gentle touch of tall trees and sloping terrain.
When Keith Davis and David Ruth first moved to Bucktoe Manor in Avondale in late October of 2014, they did so with the hope that all couples with children have – to be welcomed by neighbors, and be able to provide their two boys with the opportunity to make new friends, all within the confines of safety.
Davis owns a consulting firm that installs electronic records in hospitals; and Ruth, the former head designer for a photography company, left his job to become a full-time caretaker for his two nephews. Taking custody of the young boys was a loving gesture, but one complicated by a safety concern with the boys' biological parents that required the construction of a protective fence around the majority of their property's edge. 
Within a month of moving in, Davis and Ruth began the steps needed to construct a six-foot anti-scaling vinyl fence around the perimeter of their property. They spoke with Don Suckstorf, the zoning officer for New Garden Township. They looked at their deed for proper fence guidelines. They spoke with real estate agents. At every turn, they did not see anything that prevented construction. The fence was installed in the middle of December 2014, and together with the boys, Davis and Ruth moved into their new home in time for Christmas.
During the survey for the fence, they met a neighbor. The meeting was cordial, although the neighbor had an issue with how near the property lines came to his house. The neighbor referred to the Declaration of Covenants, Restrictions and Easements for Bucktoe Manor, that were created when the development was being constructed, and enforced by an affiliation of neighbors called the Architectural Control Committee.
The declaration stated that homeowners are only allowed to have a four-foot-high, post-and-rail  fence, that can only encompass the rear part of a property.
"If the declaration had been found or known about by the realtor and by the homeowner, we wold never have been in this situation to begin with," Davis said. "We would not have even looked at this house, but the listing stated that there was no Home Owners Association (in Bucktoe Manor) and no restrictions. If my neighbor had given me a copy of the declaration, we would not have even moved in. It would have been relevant enough to terminate our contract on this house, and not have spent significant money on this property.
"If the committee had been functioning as they should have been, we should have been aware of what was going on," Davis added. "Why didn't someone from the committee knock on my front door the following day? It wasn't until the last day of the fence installation that I received a copy of the covenant."
On New Year's Day, 2015, two neighbors came to the Ruth-Davis home and were “completely unreasonable and uncompromising,” Ruth said. "We offered to put in trees to block the view of the fence. We offered to paint the fence, but they just wanted the fence gone. If we had to leave, then we had to leave."
As a further measure to better assure that their boys would be safe, Davis and Ruth upgraded the security system on their home and placed ground sensors – valued at $500 apiece – at the end of the driveway. 
Soon after, the system, they discovered, had been ripped from the ground. They installed a new system and it, too, was soon damaged. Finally, after the fifth such incident, they gave up.
On March 9, 2015, two neighbors who live in homes that border the Davis-Ruth home filed a lawsuit against them, claiming that the fence violated the rules of the covenant. Three other neighbors soon joined in the suit, which was not filed under the auspices of the Architectural Control Committee, but initiated by the couple's neighbors.
Their problems were only beginning. Portions of the fence were cut down twice in two different locations -- by a hacksaw, as was confirmed by the fencing company which did the repairs to the fence.
Every time they would let their four dogs out in their yard, neighbors would call the police.
On June 17, 2015, they received a letter from two of their neighbors named in the lawsuit "politely" asking them to turn their back lights off. On June 23, 2015 at 8:53 a.m., New Garden Police responded to a hate crime and criminal mischief complaint. The police observed damage to the two garage doors of the Davis-Ruth home. One door was painted with the words “get out” and the second door had been painted with a derogatory term used to describe homosexuals. The investigation is still active.
Davis and Ruth have tried to keep their children unaware of the vandalism or the lawsuit, but the boys have told Davis and Ruth that they have started to endure broken friendships with a lot of the children in the neighborhood, that began soon after the lawsuit was filed.
"One of the neighborhood children told us that we were the talk of the school bus,” Davis said. “Our only assumptions were that this issue was being discussed so much in the homes in the development by the parents, that the kids were hearing what their parents were saying.”
Davis and Ruth put in a request to the committee to include a hot tub, a small pool, a swing set and a small pond to go near the pool. At first request, all were denied by the committee, but after multiple meetings with the lawyers of both sides and four additional written requests over a five-month period, the swing set, pond and hot tub were approved.   The pool installation is still denied as of today.
Davis then went to every home in the development, and recorded that 11 homes out of the 26 homes have deviations from the covenant.
The lawsuit filed against Davis and Ruth is now in its 14th month, and legal fees have continued to mount against them. What was originally thought of as a quick case has been complicated by new issues being filed every month – thus prolonging the suit. Davis and Ruth are represented by the West Chester law firm of MacElree Harvey, Ltd.
The stress of the legal action has placed a huge financial burden on the couple. Davis' job requires him to be on site with his clients in New York City for days at a stretch, but because of the on-going nature of the suit, he has had to curtail much of his business there. The toll is also a physical one; Davis suffers from a genetic bone disease called Avascular Necrosis (AVN), and has had his hips replaced and faces certain replacement of his shoulders and his knees.
"Doing that much travel is painful, and if I overdo it, I'm in pain to the point where I can't walk for the next week," he said. "It made it almost impossible for me to be at work, and that has caused us the business, and it is bankrupting us. There is also the concern that if we have to take down the fence, where is that money going to come from?"
In an effort to enlist financial support, the couple recently kicked off a Go Fund Me campaign, that to date has raised nearly $5,000 in two weeks, through 116 private donations.
Finally, on June 7 in Chester County Court, both sides presented evidence to the Hon. Jeffrey Sommer. A ruling is expected sometime this week. One of the issues that is expected to be considered will be whether the building code restrictions that govern a development like Bucktoe Manor supersede the ordinances of the municipality where the development is located; in this case, New Garden Township.
When Suckstorf performed a curbside inspection of the fence in 2014, he saw that it was not encroaching the wetlands that border the back of the home. Further, because the fence was not over six feet, it did not require a Pennsylvania Uniform Construction Code permit to construct.
While both parties wait for Judge Sommer's ruling, Davis and Ruth already know that they will likely be facing a very tenuous future at their current residence. If the court rules in their favor, Davis and Ruth fear that some kind of retaliation may happen, whether it be continued vandalism or verbal harassment, or perhaps an appeal of the decision.
If the judge rules in favor of their neighbors and the fence has to come down, they said that they would need to move as soon as possible.
“They (neighbors) have made our lives a living hell," Davis said. "We have been broken down on every level -- the lawsuit, the harassment and the vandalism."
"I feel a tenseness driving past these neighbors," Ruth said. "When we first moved in, we had such big plans," Ruth said. "The longer this has taken, the more depressing it has been to see our plans slowly go away."
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