Homes planned in Lyme disease area

November 28, 1993|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Md. Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Uni. of Md. Cooperative Extension Service, U.S. Army Environmental Hygiene Agency, STAFF GRAPHICStaff Writer

John and Grace Hiter seem to have the perfect gentleman's farm, with a large stone and wood-frame house, part of it built in the early 1700s, that sits on a grassy hillside under a granddaddy of a beech tree.

Despite its idyllic facade, the farm near Aberdeen is the focus of an unusual debate over Lyme disease -- and whether a public health risk would be created if 1,600 townhouses and apartments were built on an adjacent, 315-acre wooded site.

Some experts have called the Hiter farm a "hotbed" of the disease. The nonfatal but potentially debilitating ailment has afflicted people, horses and dogs on the 100-acre property.

Should the developer of the proposed Greenleaf subdivision, Security Management Corp. of Baltimore, be forced to investigate if there is a threat of Lyme disease before being allowed to build?

If a threat is found, should the developer be required to disclose the danger to prospective buyers?

The Greenleaf site is owned by Miami Beach financier Victor Posner, a principal in Security Management who also owns several thousand acres in Baltimore and Harford counties.

"I think it's rather blatant to ignore this," Mr. Hiter, 47, said during a recent tour of the farm.

"If people are moving in here, they should be told what they are getting into," said Mrs. Hiter, also 47. She and her husband, who were diagnosed as having Lyme disease, say they have suffered years of nagging health problems, including extreme fatigue, aches, blurred vision, and loss of memory and balance.

Four of their horses were destroyed after suffering from extreme lameness and other ailments.

Human and animal health experts don't know why the disease seems to be so prevalent on the farm, which backs up to the Maryland House rest stop on Interstate 95.

The disease is carried by ticks, and the prevailing theory is that the farm and areas around it, which include the Army's huge Aberdeen Proving Ground, provide the undeveloped land and wildlife populations that allow the ticks to thrive.

"I think there's a problem in the area; no question about it," Jefferson L. Blomquist, an attorney for Harford County, said of the Hiter farm and surrounding land.

"It's an issue that needs to be addressed."

Local health authorities say they searched in vain for a similar situation around the country that would serve as a precedent.

"I am at a loss as to how to proceed with this issue," Woody Williams, a county health official, wrote in an Oct. 21 memo.

"I could not find any evidence that governments regulate development regarding Lyme disease 'hotbeds.' "

Pesticides cannot be used to control the disease-carrying ticks, Mr. Williams said, because the huge amounts of chemicals required would kill many forms of wildlife.

One possible 'cure'

Development appears to be a "cure," he added, because the tick's habitat is reduced.

But, with the county's requirements for maintaining trees, wetlands, buffer zones and open space, "I wonder if any effects . . . will be seen" on the Greenleaf site, Mr. Williams wrote in the memo.

When Mrs. Hiter raised the Lyme disease issue a year ago before the Harford County Council, she said she was met with a "nasty" letter from Albert J. A. Young, the developer's attorney.

The letter complained about the council's efforts to require the developer to study an unknown "condition" on the Hiter property that could be causing health problems.

Although authorities looked for chemicals or other contaminants on the Hiter property, they have settled on Lyme disease as the most likely source.

"The County Council apparently seeks to hold us responsible for alleged contamination on your property," Mr. Young wrote.

"We believe it is you that may be responsible for that contamination and that if your acts cause damage to our property, it is you who will be responsible."

The council had imposed conditions on the development, including a requirement that the Hiter property be studied, that a dump site on neighboring land be investigated and that prospective buyers be told of any health risks.

The developer challenged the conditions in Harford Circuit Court. The county has since backed off, agreeing that there were legal problems with the conditions.

"Security Management understands that it is going to have to address these issues in the development process," said Mr. Young, adding that it will be two years to five years before construction starts.

"We don't know what the hell is going on up there," Thomas M. Thomas, the Harford County health officer, said of the Hiter farm.

He wants to survey residents around the farm, under the theory that ticks that carry the disease probably are abundant over a broad area.

At least one neighbor was treated for the disease several years ago.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.