Buyers sue developer near APG

September 16, 1995|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

Eleven Edgewood families filed suit yesterday against one of Harford County's best-known developers, alleging that he failed to tell them they were buying houses close to one of most dangerous chemical weapons disposal sites in the country.

The suit, filed in Harford County Circuit Court against Bel Air developer Robert C. Ward and his companies, is an uncommon civil action in Maryland and across the country -- but one that may become more frequent as the cleanup of toxic waste sites increases, legal experts say.

The families suing Mr. Ward want him to buy back their houses in Otter Creek Landing at no loss or to move them to another development.

The plaintiffs "are not greedy people and are not vindictive," said Ransom J. Davis, their attorney.

The plaintiffs bought their two-story houses off Willoughby Beach Road between December 1993 and October 1994. They paid from $120,000 to $180,000.

Lawrence J. Gebhardt, Mr. Ward's attorney, declined to comment on the suit yesterday.

In March, the plaintiffs and other residents of Otter Creek Landing learned that they had bought houses within several thousand feet of a former chemical weapons testing and training area on the Edgewood area of Aberdeen Proving Ground, known as the Nike site.

The Army wants to begin next spring digging up an undetermined number of unexploded chemical shells at the 300-acre site, which gets its name from the Nike nuclear missiles based there during much of the Cold War.

Records show that the Nike site was a major testing and training ground for the Army Chemical School from 1920 to 1951. Several hundred houses and three public schools are within a half-mile of the old training ground.

Mr. Ward agreed in November 1993 to honor a three-page memorandum of understanding with Harford County recommending -- but not requiring -- that his company disclose general information about testing and training with chemical weapons at the proving ground. The disclosure was not made to about 30 Otter Creek Landing families.

After his failure to disclose the information became public last March, Mr. Ward agreed to tell any new buyers about their proximity to the proving ground.

Mr. Ward had no explanation for not disclosing the information to the original buyers in Otter Creek Landing.

The plaintiffs allege that Mr. Ward "deliberately withheld and concealed" his knowledge of Aberdeen's mission and the extensive contamination of the 72,000-acre Army post site.

The Army has undertaken a $1 billion environmental cleanup at the post.

Before filing their suit, the plaintiffs approached Mr. Ward seeking a settlement, Mr. Davis said. "We are disappointed that there hasn't been any effort by [Mr. Ward] to try to make this right for these people," he said.

Any shells remaining on the Nike site probably contain phosgene, a lethal gas, and mustard agent, a potent liquid that blisters the skin and lungs, the Army said.

The cleanup might require temporary evacuations of residents in Otter Creek Landing or other nearby communities, Army officials said.

Mr. Davis and an environmental law specialist said there have been few similar cases in Maryland.

Toxic waste sites have been studied for years, but many of them only recently are being cleaned up. More cleanup activity around such sites leads to more public awareness of them, said Rena Steinzor, director of the University of Maryland's Environmental Law Clinic in Baltimore.

"When we actually move into the cleanup phase, these suits will become more common," said Ms. Steinzor, who during the 1980s was a congressional aide helping to rewrite the federal Superfund law, which sets guidelines for cleaning toxic waste sites.

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