Nike Missile Site Next Door

April 14, 1995

The furor over possible dangers of unexploded chemical weapons to homes near Aberdeen Proving Ground's former test sites -- and whether buyers were told about these buried munitions -- underlines important obligations for all concerned.

A conscientious homebuyer, making the largest purchase of a lifetime, should take the effort to discover what lies in the vicinity of the house, whether it be an Army weapons testing ground, a closed landfill or a planned highway.

A reputable developer and builder should advise prospective homebuyers of unusual conditions in the vicinity. They need not put on a horror show of potential doom, when the county has zoned the land for residential use, but they should honestly disclose known uses of such unique facilities as a chemical warfare testing center.

The county, likewise, has an obligation to assure that residents are informed of special conditions, such as the residue of toxic chemical munitions that may lie buried in adjacent properties. That should not be a mere "recommendation" to the developer, but a legal requirement.

Over the last four years, Harford County and the state health department have prodded developers to disclose to buyers the location of nearby landfills and the Army testing facility. But the conditions and requirements of disclosures have varied.

In the case of Otter Creek Landing, the developer signed an agreement with Harford County in 1993 that recommended disclosure of APG activities to interested buyers. But it was not legally required, as the accord came two years after the 234-home development had been approved and two decades after the land was zoned for residential use.

Recently, Harford officials apologized to the developer, Bob Ward, for earlier claiming that he had violated that accord. The county admitted it had misstated the builder's legal duty, but insisted that future buyers will get a disclosure. On the other hand, Mr. Ward, a longtime Harford builder, seemed to dismiss his ethical duty to purchasers.

Detailing what was tested and where during 75 years of top-secret programs at APG is a formidable task. Even the Army doesn't know what live munitions are buried there; it's surveying the Edgewood-Joppa border to plan shell removal next year.

Homeowners must hope that cleanup proceeds as effectively as promised by the military. Meanwhile, the county should require disclosures so that other unwary buyers don't step on a legal land mine.

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