Toxic and Legal Exposures

December 09, 1993

As Howard County fights a civil suit brought by a couple who claim that contamination from a landfill has harmed their property value, a sense of foreboding among county officials is justified. The county stands to lose a great deal should the case be decided in the couple's favor; the potential damage claims could extend well beyond this one landfill and piece of property.

The case currently being heard in Howard Circuit Court involves the county's Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville and 156 adjacent acres owned by Clyde and Shirley Pendleton. The Pendletons want $2.6 million for what they claim is the diminished value of their property now that contamination has been detected at the dump.

Officials are being understandably circumspect about the county's potential liability should the Pendletons prevail. There are two other county landfills besides Alpha Ridge -- New Cut Road in Ellicott City and Carrs Mill in Woodbine -- and both have shown signs of contamination. Thankfully, the county has taken steps to protect homeowners, including extending public water and sewer to the areas affected near Alpha Ridge and New Cut. Near Carrs Mill, which is considered too rural for public facilities, other remedies are being considered.

The county's actions do not necessarily protect it against damage claims but could prove mitigating factors should the courts rule in the complainants' favor. Some similar Maryland cases of landowners claiming damages from contamination have been decided in the plaintiffs' favor, but have not resulted in large awards for damages. Still, it's a situation that could prove disastrous for the county. The Pendletons have asked for a jury trial, where they might engender sympathy for their situation.

There is another hurdle the Pendletons must clear, however. While they claim that contamination has affected ground water and the atmosphere around their land, the county denies this and no tests have been taken at the site. Any case seeking damages requires that such tests be made.

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker is not exaggerating when he says a lot is riding on the Pendleton case. The already costly effort of correcting problems at the county's three landfills could skyrocket if the county loses this one.

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