by Tom Schild
A restrictive covenant which limits use of lots to “single family residences”–but does not define the term “family”–is ambiguous. Therefore, it is not enforceable to prevent renting a house to persons not related by blood, marriage or adoption, according a recent decision of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in South Kaywood Community Association v. Long.
A Wicomico County homeowners association contended that the restriction requiring use and occupancy as a “single family” residence prevented lease of a house to 3 unrelated student who attend Salisbury University.
The appeals court noted that Maryland courts apply a “reasonably strict construction” when interpreting covenants so that if there is ambiguity in meaning, any doubt should favor the unrestricted use of the property. In discerning the intent of the drafter in using the term “single family”, the court looked for but found no guidance in other provisions of the South Kaywood covenants. Observing that no Maryland appellate court has considered the meaning of a “single family” covenant, it also considered court decisions from other states decided near the time the 1961 South Kaywood restriction was drafted by found no clear covenant.
In concluding that the term “single family” is ambiguous, the Court noted that the term as used in zoning ordinances is often defined to include a specified number of unrelated persons living as a single housekeeping unit. It also noted that the great majority of courts in other states which have construed the term in zoning ordinances or restrictive covenants since the South Kaywood restriction was imposed have concluded that the term is ambiguous and does not necessarily restrict use of property to persons related by blood, marriage or adoption.
Therefore, the “single family” covenant restriction did not prevent occupancy by 3 unrelated college students.