House built in flood plain causes anguish for owners Lawsuit claims builder, title company, surveyor should have stopped them

July 12, 1993|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,Staff Writer

In April, Lawrence Morgan stood in his yard with his jeans rolled up to his knees and watched his red canoe float across the FTC lawn and hit the chain-link fence outside his English Consul home.

Now Mr. Morgan and his wife, Linda, lift the canoe onto two wooden sawhorses and lash it down with nylon rope. "I hope it will stay planted this time, no matter what comes through here," Mr. Morgan says.

For the Morgans and three neighbors on Century Avenue in southwestern Baltimore County, a dark cloud or a storm forecast is a warning to cover up and tie down everything that can float away. That's because their block is in a Class A flood zone.

The Morgans said they didn't know about the flooding when they had their house built there in 1989. In fact, the house shouldn't be there at all, because Baltimore County isn't supposed to issue building permits in flood zones.

The county issued one in this case. Officials said they were sorry, but that was all. It wasn't their job to check. Now the Morgans are left to battle it out in court in a lawsuit filed against their builder, the title company and surveyor.

"We feel like everyone -- the builder and the county -- knew this was a flood zone except us," Mr. Morgan said. "Now I've invested not just time, but over $140,000 in a house that is basically worthless."

Actually, the neighbors have known about the flooding for decades. Two nearby houses were built in the late 1930s, long before the area was declared a flood zone in 1981.

Longtime residents

Amiel Montgomery, 80, has lived for 52 years in his house across from the Morgans, and he knows the problems well. "Every year, we've had at least one bad storm that comes through and really destroys stuff," he said.

In 1941, three weeks after he moved in, Mr. Montgomery said, he was awakened by the noise of his basement sump pump.

"I heard that pump running like a race horse," he said, but before Mr. Montgomery reached the bottom basement step, water burst through the door and flooded the cellar ankle-deep.

He also recalled a flash flood in the late 1960s. "Water was so high around here that the Ridgely kids, who live across the street, rode their canoes over 4-foot hedges and into my yard. You couldn't see the road at all for water."

"My house is sitting on a spring head," said Russell Ridgely, 66, who has lived in the last house on the one-way street for 38 years. "Yards around here are always mushy from rain that has no place to go. A dog can wet on the fire plug across the street and I get a stream coming through my basement," Mr. Ridgely said.

Fences help

A 20-minute downpour on a warm summer evening is enough to dump 6 inches of water on the lawns, submerge grass and shrubs, and wash away anything in its path, residents said.

"Fences are the only things that stop the water from washing everything into the street," said Mr. Morgan. "They create a dam, and plants and lawn chairs get caught in them."

A small stream flows through the Morgans' back yard. When he first looked at the property, Mr. Morgan said, he thought it was a "harmless piece of nature." But it's technically known as a riverine, a type of flood plain that is not to be underestimated, according to Dave Thomas, assistant to the county public works director.

Four years ago, when the Morgans bought the property from contractor Jerome Savaliski Sr. for $95,000, they say that neither he nor the county told them about the riverine. And the county issued a building permit.

"In theory, no, the Morgans' house should not have been built, but we are aware that mistakes may happen," Mr. Thomas said.

The applicant for the building permit, usually the contractor, is required to show "the extent of any flood plain area on the property" on maps recorded with the county.

'That's their problem'

There's no way to determine whether the builder's map showed the flood plain because the county routinely disposes of those records after a period of time. Mr. Thomas said the county never would have issued the permit if there was a flood plain on the map. But he said the county doesn't check them to make sure they're accurate.

"The responsibility is that of the applicants," Mr. Thomas said. "If the land owners are misrepresented, that's their problem."

Ed Kroschinsky, 68, has lived his whole life in his 70-year-old house, whose back yard lies in the flood plain. He says he has told everyone who was planning to build on Century Avenue to be careful.

"You don't need to look at a fancy county map to see this property here is in a flood plain," he said, as he pointed to the Morgans' house and the empty lot next door. "You can tell just by looking at the river that fills the street and yards when it rains."

But Mr. Savaliski, owner of Port Contractors and father of Jerome Savaliski Jr., who built the house, said he did not know the Morgans' property was in a flood plain.

"If I was going to build a house in a flood plain, the county never would have issued the permit. But they did issue one," Mr. Savaliski said.

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