New gas discovery worries neighbors Fire officials, builder await test results for evacuated house

October 02, 1998|By Jamal E. Watson | Jamal E. Watson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Gady Epstein, Edward Lee, Alice Lukens and Nancy Youssef contributed to this article.

The latest evacuation of an Elkridge family because of seeping methane has heightened concerns among neighbors and deepened the mystery about the source of the problem.

Until Wednesday, when high levels of methane were found in a home in the Marshalee Woods subdivision, the gas appeared to be confined to a neighboring subdivision, Calvert Ridge, where three families were forced out a month ago.

"This is very stressful," said Kathy Wright, 32, a Marshalee Woods resident. "If someone had mentioned that there would be methane in the neighborhood, we wouldn't have moved there. We thought the methane in Calvert Ridge was isolated from us."

Officials of Ryan Homes, which is building both subdivisions, said yesterday they don't have any information about the newest site of methane -- and no conclusive results from many soil tests done at Calvert Ridge.

"We are still in the process of investigating what's causing the methane," said Robert Coursey, Ryan Homes spokesman. "Once find the source, we will provide corrective actions."

The family displaced Wednesday seemed to take it in stride.

"I never thought in a million years that this would happen to us," said Danette Riviello, 36, who lived in the red-brick house with her husband, Chris, 35, and their daughter Emily, 7. "But right now, we're dealing with this."

The displaced families can return once county fire officials determine methane levels have dropped below levels consider potentially explosive.

County officials say they're watching the situation closely but generally seem satisfied with Ryan Homes' efforts.

Yesterday, County Executive Charles I. Ecker met with representatives from Ryan Homes as well as Patriot Homes, builders of a planned 37-lot development near the Calvert Ridge homes, as part of an effort to ensure the builders take appropriate steps.

Late last month, county officials told the builders that permits for new homes wouldn't be issued until they had resolved the

methane concerns -- which could have delayed the Patriot Homes project -- and occupancy permits for homes under construction won't be issued unless they test methane-free.

"I'm very impressed with how they're handling the situation," Ecker said. "The levels of methane are very low -- it doesn't seem to be a big problem, but it is a concern to them and to me."

David Hammerman, director of inspections, licenses and permits for the county, said Ryan Homes told the county last week that testing had found methane coming from decayed organic matter, which could be from tree stumps dumped long ago in a quarry there, or simply from buried topsoil. But the company said it can reach no conclusions yet, frustrating all involved.

"We're not even sure what's there. That's one of our dilemmas -- not knowing the magnitude of the problem," Hammerman said. "Meanwhile, people are angry. The homeowners are angry because they thought they were shortchanged. The developers and builders are angry because they thought everything was OK."

After methane was detected in the Calvert Ridge subdivision last month, longtime residents of the area said the land was once a dumping ground for hazardous materials, including World War II equipment and old cars. But county officials, the developer and the builder say the site was a gravel pit.

Donald Reuwer, developer of the Patriot Homes project, said his land has no methane problem and that he and Patriot Homes will do more than necessary to ensure there never is one.

"When you're dealing with [home] sales, you're dealing with perceptions," Reuwer said. "We've got to have so much overkill that the world knows that there is no problem. We can't have even a perception of the problem."

Reuwer blamed "overreaction" by the Fire Department for evacuating residents and helping create "hysteria."

Neighborhood reaction has not been hysterical, however. Some neighbors worry property values might decline in the subdivisions, where many homes cost $250,000 to $300,000, but say that they don't believe that the gas puts them in immediate danger.

"We have to keep this in perspective," said Nancy Deems, 35, who lives with her husband in Marshalee Woods. "I don't think that any homes are going to blow up, but I do worry about the value of my home."

In recent weeks, the builder and the developer have come under sharp criticism from the three families originally forced to evacuate. These families have said they are considering taking legal action.

Tom Singleton, 35, said he and his wife, who were not among the evacuees, recently put a down payment on a home in the Calvert Ridge subdivision. After learning of the methane problem, he asked for a refund, and no longer wants to move into the home.

"For weeks, I've been asking Ryan to relieve me of my contract," Singleton said. "They said that my contract is binding and that I can't get out of it."

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