Soil testing ordered on foul odors Review panel ruling targets problems at Locust House

'Have to cover all bases'

Resident of building for seniors, disabled appealed county action

August 19, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The Carroll County Board of Housing Review has recommended soil testing to determine the source of an intermittent foul odor at Locust House, a subsidized housing complex for the elderly and disabled in Westminster.

In its decision, the five-member board said the county Bureau of Permits and Inspections "did not properly enforce the Minimum Livability Code when it failed to require random exterior soil samples" from land surrounding the seven-story building, home to nearly 100 tenants.

The code, enacted by the county a decade ago, protects renters from unsafe housing conditions. The ruling by the board, which serves as an avenue of appeal for tenants, marks the first time it has criticized a county agency.

"At the time we made the decision, we thought we had enough documentation to say that no further testing was required," said Michael Maring, assistant bureau chief of permits and inspections.

Ralph E. Green, the bureau chief who opposed additional tests, received notice of the board's ruling Friday but was not available for comment yesterday. The county's response has not been formulated, Maring said. But the board has written that "testing of random exterior soil samples is a reasonable precaution which should be required."

Residents' complaints date back several years and are on file in Green's office.

Lori Millender, former resident manager of the 19-year-old building, reported "noticeable sewer gas odor in the lobby and in second floor units," in a document filed Oct. 6 with the county.

The county ordered air-quality samples from inside the building in December. Those tests attributed the odor to gasoline, possibly found in a paint-stripping chemical. Levels detected were too low to pose a hazard to residents, according to a report prepared by Scientific Control Inc. of Edgewood, a consulting firm hired by the building's owner.

The report contradicted most residents' accounts that compared the smell to sewer gas or rotten garbage. Few recalled an odor of paint.

Many say they have eye and respiratory problems when the odor is present. They detect the smell most often in the lobby, particularly as they enter the building.

Greg Keller, county livability code inspector, said the interior air tests did not account for the smell, and he ordered borings of the soil outside the brick building. The work involved drilling and analyzing residue and would be at the expense of Humphrey Management Co. of Silver Spring, the building owner.

Borings should go down about 13 feet, below the foundation wall, and should be taken within five feet on all sides of the building, Keller said. Cost would be about $2,000.

"I requested further testing because of the type of facility and because of the recurrence of the odor," he said. "We have to cover all bases on the side of safety."

But Humphrey Management complained that any odor emanating from the ground would be constant and easily detectable, not intermittent and elusive. Sampling would not be an effective use of company resources, the company wrote in a March 25 letter to Green. Green overturned Keller's recommendation.

The odor has persisted, prompting Michael Melsheimer, a Locust House resident, to file an appeal of Green's decision with the board. The brick building was constructed on the site of an abandoned distillery near Westminster City Hall.

"The test would analyze soil disturbed at construction," Keller said. "This was a dumping area, and there could be pockets of gases. It is speculation, but it is as good an explanation as any we have."

Melsheimer fears that rotting distillery drums buried years ago are causing the odor.

"I really believe we had enough information to suggest a potential for a health hazard here," said Melsheimer. "The issue is whether the county acted properly in not requiring more tests."

The board ruled that evidence "when liberally construed with an eye toward protecting the public, is sufficient to suggest the existence of a potential health hazard -- particularly for the aged and/or infirm residents of Locust House."

Keller said he assumes the county will require the building owner to hire a contractor to perform the tests. No representative from Humphrey Management attended the hearing. The company has not reviewed the decision and declined to comment yesterday.

Rentals at Locust House are subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the state Department of Housing and Community Development. Both agencies will receive notice of the board's decision.

Pub Date: 8/19/98

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