News & Politics » Neighborhood News

Trouble in paradise: Woman shutters in fear. Neighbors shudder in horror. Everybody sues.



In 1990 Judy Marks had the windows on her four-story near-north-side town house outfitted with a set of heavy-duty aluminum security shutters. She intended only to secure her home from break-ins, but she wound up in a costly legal battle with some of her neighbors in the Sutton Place Townhome Association, a walled-in group of 50 town houses on Clark north of Goethe. Marks says she should be allowed to keep her shutters because they're unobtrusive and don't hurt anyone. Her opponents contend the shutters are so ugly they deface the building, undercut its value, and violate the Sutton Place rule against installing items on the outside of the town homes.

What makes this case different from other condominium squabbles is the ferocity with which it has been waged. Each side has sued the other at least once (combined legal fees are at about $80,000 and climbing). In October Judge Arthur Dunne ruled against Marks, ordering her to remove the shutters. She's appealing.

"Because this is an on-going legal situation, my lawyer has advised me that I should not comment," says Larry Greenspon, president of the association. "I don't see why I should talk to a reporter anyway. I can just see your story now--those meanies on the board took it upon themselves to abuse this poor woman. All I can say is that it didn't happen that way."

Marks is more forthcoming. "I don't see how they can claim that my shutters have hurt property values when units are selling for more now than ever before. This is a passive and unobtrusive way for me to protect myself. And, tell me, what can be wrong with that?"

Sutton Place was built by Arthur Rubloff in the late 1970s. Just across the street is the Carl Sandburg Village; to the east are the swank old mansions of the Gold Coast. Marks, a former stockbroker, bought her unit in 1979 for $190,000. Similar complexes now fetch as much as $480,000. Sutton Place is home to prominent lawyers, politicians, and business executives. "This really is a fabulous place to live," says Jan Brown, a friend of Marks's who also lives in the complex. "Despite the terrible things that a few people have done to Judy, most of the people are very nice."

But several blocks to the west is Cabrini-Green, a source of anxiety for Sutton Place residents who worry about crime. "In 1988 there was a break-in at a town house here," says Marks. "A lady was attacked by a home invader. By the time her husband got to her, she was already beaten black and blue." After that break-in the town-house association added a three-foot iron fence to the seven-foot brick wall that surrounds the entire complex. But fears about crime only escalated a year later when a woman was murdered in the alley behind Sutton Place.

"After the break-in of 1988 a lot of people put in security systems and alarms," says Marks. "But that was nothing compared to the reaction after the murder. People were talking about buying the alley to secure it. Women were taking gun lessons. There was a lot of fear."

The association added a second security guard, but Marks didn't think that was enough. "What's a second security guard going to do if your home is invaded? He can't get to you in time. They say the wall is protection, but someone can scale that. They can climb right into a house."

To prove her point Marks cites a police report of a 1991 break-in: "The victim states that he heard someone in the house and when he and witness [his wife] looked up [they] observed a man standing near their bedroom. The offender said that he would shoot [the] victim and witness then turned and fled. . . . Further investigation revealed that entry was possibly made through upstairs glass door with the offender climbing up an outer wall for access to said window."

In April 1990 Marks installed the shutters. "To me they look like mini blinds--you can buy them anywhere. I never thought it would be a big deal. They're a deterrent. If a guy tries to break in, he'll take one look at them and say 'Forget it,' and he'll walk away. Another couple in the complex, the Slutskys, had installed a similar set on their unit before I installed mine. No one had complained about those shutters."

But some of her neighbors say the shutters are so thick and heavy they make it seem as though the building is boarded up. Furthermore, they argue, Marks's shutters are more obtrusive than the Slutskys' because they overlook the street.

"Personally, they don't bother me, though I don't think they're attractive," says Doug Antonio, one of the few Sutton Place residents who's on speaking terms with both Marks and her opponents. "The real concern I think was that if you let one person put them up, everyone could put them up. Then it would look bad, as though the building were boarded up."

Marks and the Slutskys were called before the association's board. "The board members said our shutters would lower property values because people will think we have a security problem," says Marks. "I say we do have a security problem. The whole world has a security problem. But around here the idea is that if no one knows about it, if it's hush-hush, people will think we're impervious. But I say knowledge is power. You don't want to walk around with a false sense of security."

The board members insisted the shutters violated terms of the town-home bylaws, which prohibit any owner from installing "outside his townhouse any canopy or awning or other equipment, fixtures or items of any kind without the prior permission of the board."

Marks says the board members were belligerent. "They didn't just ask us to take them down, they ordered us to do it. They were vehement. One board member waved his fist and said, 'These are coming down--we'll take them down.'"

In August 1990 Marks and the Slutskys filed separate suits against Sutton Place, seeking a court order to block the association from removing the shutters. The association filed a counterclaim, requesting the court to order Marks and the Slutskys to remove their shutters. (The Slutskys have since moved out of the complex.)

At that point a compromise might have been reached between the association and Marks (one suggestion offered by Antonio was that the shutters be allowed so long as they were kept open during the day). But neither side relented.

Marks says that after she filed her suit, her next-door neighbors disconnected her cable-TV service. "Because of the way our cable system works, I wasn't able to get it back on by myself. When I went to an association meeting to complain about it, the former board president tried to eject me. He actually grabbed the chair I was sitting in and shook it. No one else in the room came to my rescue. I was devastated after that. My doctor had to put me on Valium."

Marks has since sued her neighbors, the association, and several association members, seeking several million dollars "for the deliberate refusal of the [defendants] to act to restore [the cable] service." In her lawsuit she states, "Because of the actions of Defendants, among the shows and events she has missed are: (a) The 1990 Gulf War. Saddam Hussein in Baghdad was able to watch Peter Arnett of Cable News Network. Plaintiff Judith R. Marks in Chicago was not. (b) The 1990 and 1991 Chicago Bulls playoffs. (c) Cable News Network gavel to gavel coverage of the 1992 Democratic and Republican Conventions. (d) Larry King Live."

That suit, incidentally, is one of four filed by residents of Sutton Place against either the association or one another. "In some respects when you talk about an upscale community like this, if the people can afford to litigate they will do so," says Antonio. "You can't push around wealthy people--they resist."

The case involving Marks's shutters went to court in October. "At the heart of this case is the conflict between an individual town house owner's rights and the limitations he or she faces when they buy into a town-house association," says state representative Ellis Levin, who, in his capacity as a private lawyer, represented Marks. "We argued that there was an informal understanding to allow exemptions, that the board had never rigorously enforced all of the restrictions in its bylaws. Someone once installed a dome over a fire escape, and several patios have been reconstructed without the association's approval."

But Judge Dunne ruled for the association, arguing that "this court cannot find a parallel between four stories of exterior, rolling, metal shutters covering the sliding windows, which occupy almost an entire width of [Marks's] condominium," and other alterations allowed by the association.

"No residential premise can be made completely entry-proof," he wrote. "The Association . . . has taken all reasonable steps to ensure security."

Dunne allowed Marks to keep the shutters on her first-floor windows, which are concealed by a brick wall, but ordered her to remove them from windows on the other floors. All the shutters remain, pending appeal.

Left unresolved is the issue of legal fees. The association wants Marks to pay its legal fees. Marks refuses. A judge may eventually have to settle that matter as well.

"Some people ask, 'Why don't you move?'" says Marks. "But if I move I would have been forced out. I like it here, as long as I have my shutters to make me feel secure. In my mind, this case comes down to aesthetics versus security. My life is very important, and I'll take whatever legal steps I have to to protect it. Most women would."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

Add a comment