Sink­hole in Green­mont opens up le­gal quag­mire

Cou­ple try­ing to get county, HOA to ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By PAUL LAGASSE pla­gasse@somd­news.com

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

their house.

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.”

STAFF PHO­TOS BY PAUL LAGASSE

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.

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