Sinkhole in Greenmont opens up legal quagmire
Couple trying to get county, HOA to accept responsibility
It has been over three weeks since Coral Showalter looked out the kitchen window overlooking her backyard and noticed that two trees had toppled into a sinkhole. It was the beginning of a bureaucratic nightmare from which the Greenmont subdivision resident and her husband Gary have yet to awaken.
The county has told them that it is only responsible for maintaining the street gutters. The Waldorf neighborhood’s HOA has told them that it is only responsible for maintaining the pond into which those gutters drain.
No one, it seems, can agree on who is responsible for the 176-foot length of 27-inch corrugated steel tubing that connects the two beneath the Showalters’ yard.
In the meantime, the hole just gets deeper and wider with every storm. Heavy rain on Aug. 11 caused the sinkhole to double in size and dump rock and sediment into the runoff pond behind
Structural engineers have told the Showalters that if it continues to expand, the sinkhole could collapse the fence they share with their neighbor. If it grows beyond that, it could undermine their in-ground swimming pool, unleashing a torrent of 240,000 pounds of water.
“Judy Michael [the property acquisition officer of the county Department of Planning and Growth Management] and Ray Shumaker [the department’s inspections superintendent] told me that from what they can find, the pipe does not belong to the county,” Coral Showalter said. “I asked for documentation, and the next day I was told that I had to file a Maryland Public Information Act request officially requesting the documents.”
According to the state attorney general’s guidelines, agencies have up to 30 days to respond to MPIA requests.
When reached for comment, county commissioners spokesperson Erin Pomrenke said that written requests for such records are generally required, but they can be as simple as an email request.
“Given the nature of the issue, the county will work to expedite a response,” Pomrenke said.
Pomrenke added that the county is reviewing this issue to determine what, if any, assistance it can offer to the Showalters. Asked whether the county is aware of whether other properties in the subdivision may be at risk of similar problems, Pomrenke said that the county could not comment until “a full review” has been completed.
Curtis Carlson, president of the Greenmont HOA, said, “We are pursuing legal counsel regarding the responsibility and the means of possibly reconstructing the system.”
“The HOA is responsible for the ponds that the systems drain into,” Carlson explained. “We have been maintaining them, and they have been inspected. That portion, we have no problem with.”
The Greenmont HOA has a board of three volunteers. It is not operated by a property management company.
The architect’s plans for the neighborhood show a 20-foot easement through the yards of both the Showalters and their next-door neighbor, running from the street to a three-quarter-acre drainage pond behind their properties. According to the plans, there are similar stormwater drain easements on at least 28 other properties in the Greenmont neighborhood.
Over the last three weeks, Coral Showalter has by necessity become quite familiar with the county’s stormwater ordinance. “Since 2010, you cannot put a pipe in somebody’s yard unless it’s more than an acre,” she said. “But this home was built in 1992.”
“I asked [Shumaker] if there was an ordinance from the ‘90s, and his response was, ‘Yes, but they were pretty loosey-goosey and vague back then,’” Showalter said. The current stormwater management ordinance was first adopted the year after the Showalters’ home was built.
Greenmont was developed by Waldorf Highlands Joint Venture, a partnership that included prominent local developer Warren E. Barley, who died in 2002.
The Showalters have had contractors in to provide estimates. “We’ve had several companies that have said, ‘Woah, this is way beyond the scope of our company,’” Showalter said. “Several have said they could do the work, but no one could guarantee protection of the pool.”
So far, only two companies have submitted estimates.
“If it says somewhere that the homeowner, when they bought this house, bought this pipe and is responsible for it, it was never disclosed to us,” Showalter said. “We were just told there was an easement for which we would have to allow access.” As far as Showalter knows, the pipe had never been inspected since they moved there in 1999.
Showalter argues that an equitable solution would be for the county to fix the drain right away and bill the HOA, which would need to collect funds from the other HOA members.
“There’s a lot of passing of the buck,” Showalter said. “In our humble opinions, as Charles County taxpaying citizens, the drainage pipe is the responsibility of either the county or the homeowners association.”
“It just happens to run through our property.”
Heavy rains the night of July 28 collapsed a stormwater drain pipe that runs through the yard of Coral and Gary Showalter in the Greenmont subdivision in Waldorf.
Subsequent rains have deposited enough silt and rock in the Showalter’s yard to nearly fill the end of the trench that was formed when a 27-inch corrugated steel stormwater drain pipe collapsed.