Neighborhood has problems with sinkholes

June 21, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

While some county officials attempt to write an ordinance to deter builders from burying debris on construction sites, several residents of an Eldersburg subdivision are dealing with sinkholes caused by the decay of such debris.

Wooded lots attracted buyers to the High Point development six years ago, and the builder tried to preserve as many trees as possible.

Of what was cut down, much was buried on the properties. Now it is rotting away and creating sinkholes, which are eyesores and potential hazards in the neighborhood of $200,000 houses.

Firewood Drive residents are searching for ways to fill the multiple sinkholes on their properties.

Michael Witte said that two years ago, as he was mowing his grass, he nearly lost the rear wheel of his tractor in a sinkhole that developed in the yard of the home he had purchased new in 1988.

Masonry Contractors, the builder of the development, filled in the hole with dirt. It reopened, wider and deeper.

"This year it really opened," said Mr. Witte. "I have to keep it fenced off to keep kids away. There are a lot of kids here, and that really has us concerned."

Poles and bright orange tape mark the perimeter of the hole, which he estimates at 15 feet across and at least 6 feet deep. His neighbor Pam Dyson, who has a 3-foot-deep sinkhole of her own, worries about the surrounding soft dirt in Mr. Witte's yard.

"It could cave in at any time," said Ms. Dyson, the mother of two young children. "What if somebody falls in?"

Ms. Dyson said the contractor filled in a large sinkhole similar to Mr. Witte's in her yard last year.

"I really appreciated that because the hole terrified my children," she said. "They were petrified they would fall in."

Another hole has since developed on her property. Ms. Dyson said she "got a sense from Masonry that the problem is now the homeowners' responsibility."

The development's large trees first attracted Ms. Dyson and her husband to their house.

She has pictures of her home under construction and can point to the burial sites, where rotting debris is causing the ground to sink.

"The only thing ever buried was clearing material, such as limbs, branches, stumps and brush," said Martin K. P. Hill, owner of Masonry Contractors. "We have since stopped the practice."

Mr. Hill asked the residents for patience. "We have a few developments close to High Point, and we will get there with fill dirt on an as-available basis," he said.

Last summer, Charles G. Jones lost the end of his driveway to a sinkhole and has called the developer several times. "This one involves more than just fill dirt," he said. "I can't afford to blacktop."

The ground on his 1-acre lot used to be level, he said. It has developed six sinkholes in the past few years.

"At the rate it's going, I wonder where the next sinkhole will appear," he said. "I can't let my children play when the yard is snow-covered. They can't see the holes."

Neighbors wonder if they have any recourse. Several have contacted county officials, who have told them that burying construction debris is an accepted practice.

"In my book, it is not acceptable practice," said Ms. Dyson. "It is appalling that there is no ordinance for this situation."

High Point is one of the last developments where Mr. Hill's contractors buried debris and probably one of the few places having problems with settling, said Mr. Hill.

"It could be 15 to 20 years before all the buried debris rots out," said Mr. Jones. "The only way to stop it is to dig it all out and put in fresh dirt."

The county bureau of Water Resource Management has received 300 sinkhole reports in the past four years. Most stem from natural causes, but 52 have been traced to buried construction debris.

"The reports have been increasing and have prompted concerns for revisions to county policy," said Catherine Rappe, chief of Water Resources Management. She also serves on a subcommittee of the Environmental Affairs Advisory Board that is considering a grading ordinance to prohibit burial of construction debris.

"We may have restrictions on future sites, but the ordinance would not be retroactive," said Ms. Rappe.

The decomposing debris creates voids, the soil settles in to fill the voids and causes recurring holes, she said.

Residents may have to "find a way to compact or dig up the debris and replace it with clean dirt."

At a buried-debris subcommittee meeting yesterday, she urged members to find a solution that is best for residents.

"They come back to us with questions of why we didn't do something," she said.

The subcommittee is charged with defining what may and may not be buried on residential lots. Several members are developing engineering specifications for burying tree stumps.

"The specs would have to include compaction standards consistent with a reasonable practice of covering stumps," said Kevin Dayhoff, subcommittee chairman.

The proposed ordinance would require builders to show all burial locations on subdivision plats and on individual deeds.

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