Cary News

Peeved neighbor mutes rude message on Cary house

For years, David Bowden’s house declared in fluorescent paint that he had been “Screwed By The Town of Cary.” For a week, a neighbor competed with a “We (heart) the Town of CARY” sign.

Bowden’s protest message became a local icon and the heart of an ongoing lawsuit against the town, while Keith Ramsey’s counterpoint is largely forgotten. But Ramsey, an ardent supporter of the town government, will have the final say on S.W. Maynard Road.

Months after Bowden passed away last year, Ramsey bought the older man’s home. He scraped and spackled, solved the drainage problems Bowden blamed on the town, and installed new siding where Bowden once lambasted the local government.

More than an investment, Ramsey’s purchase of the house was a chance to reverse Cary’s most infamous eyesore, and to show support for the town and its extensive aesthetic rules, he said.

“I don’t know why things like that get under my skin, but it just peeved me,” he said of Bowden’s protest and the controversy that followed. He thought about the politics and symbolism of it all “pretty much the whole way through,” the $60,000 renovation.

He intended in part to prove Bowden had little standing for his famous complaint.

Butting heads

David Bowden’s lawsuit, which now stands before the U.S. Court of Appeals, had mundane origins: Bowden believed town construction on S.W. Maynard Road flooded his home. A years-long legal battle didn’t solve that, but a small trench across the front of the house did, Ramsey said.

Bowden wanted the town of Cary to purchase his house, which he argued was unmarketable because of the damage. The town had unconditionally offered in fall 2009 to install extra drainage works, but Bowden refused for unknown reasons, said town spokeswoman Susan Moran.

The “screwed” sign went up shortly afterward, Moran said, and the town issued violation notices for Bowden’s oversized protest. The American Civil Liberties Union stepped into the fray, backing Bowden in a legal argument that his First Amendment rights overrode the town’s aesthetic rules.

Early the next summer, Keith Ramsey wrote his Cary love note in six foot letters on black landscaping fabric. “I can see his frustration, but he’s probably pushed the point too far,” Ramsey said at the time. He took his sign down a week later, but Bowden pressed on.

Bowden and the ACLU won the first round, but the elderly man grew ill as the case wound on. Early last year, Bowden upgraded the sign, using extra space and neater lettering to announce that he had lung cancer. “But remember I put up a good fight,” it concluded.

Even in his final hours, Bowden railed against the town, his sworn enemy.

“On his deathbed, I promised him that I would not drop it,” said Bowden’s daughter, Dawn Brown. “If I could have ... continued to pay for the house, I’d have left it sitting like it was.”

But she couldn’t afford the upkeep, so the home went on the market. Its front was still covered by her father’s last message, and its crawlspace was still damp.

Cleaning house

“I didn’t think about it but for a second,” Ramsey recalled. For $76,000, he could own the house that plagued him, that led his children to ask why someone would write such a rude message.

The sign was already gone, thanks to Michelle Muir and Don Hyatt, both challengers in the Cary Town Council election, and donated labor from JTrent Associates Contractors. Yet even without its markings, the deteriorating house and its long history stirred something in Ramsey.

“I love to jump into a project like that,” said Ramsey, owner of Garden Supply. “To have it be a negative point in people’s mind, then turn it into a positive, that’s twice as much fun.”

Ramsey, his wife, and his two young children did much of the work themselves. The renovation includes a new HVAC system, marble on the kitchen counters, paint and siding, landscaping and new parking.

Bowden “could’ve solved his own problem,” Ramsey said last week as he toured the finished house, which is listed for $177,000.

Dawn Brown still believes in her father’s cause, and she disputes the idea that Bowden had the financial means to fix the house’s problems, though critics took note of his sporty car.

“He was determined that he was in the right, and he was,” she said.

That question, the matter of who was right, is now purely theoretical. The man behind the case has passed away, his message painted over and his old house repaired. The lawsuit may still affect Cary’s sign ordinances, but for now Ramsey has brought the story of 305 S.W Maynard Road to a close, and added his say to a long argument.

“Maybe I’m as stubborn as him,” Ramsey said. “I love the sign ordinance.”