Relay's sinking homes Mystery: Land shifts have affected a dozen homes in this historic railroad town. No one's sure of the cause.

December 29, 1998|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Something strange is happening in Relay.

Jack Herbert's two-story Victorian home is breaking apart. Down the street, Elizabeth Bennett's kitchen is threatening to detach itself from her 115-year-old house. Another neighbor's porch has crumbled. Even the street, Viaduct Avenue, is pockmarked with cracks, crevices and dips.

Parts of this historic railroad town near Patapsco Valley State Park in Baltimore County's southwestern corridor are sinking. But finding the root of the problem might require the detective skills of a Sherlock Holmes -- or an expert in the physical sciences.

County geologists, State Highway Administration engineers and private consultants have visited during the past month, and they have different theories -- ranging from a possible fault line running through the town, to mushy soil and even Relay's proximity to Interstate 95.

"We're concerned about it," said Mike Johnson, a county zoning inspector who said Herbert's home should be condemned. "We need some expert opinion in there. The land is shifting we don't know really what is happening down there."

The land shifts have affected about a dozen homes, most of them on Viaduct Avenue and some on adjoining Woodland Drive. A meeting with public works and environmental officials, and elected officials, is expected next month.

Until then, residents such as Herbert and Bennett wonder what will happen to their property.

"It all started a little over two years ago," Herbert said, pointing to a 4-inch fissure in the brick foundation of his 110-year-old frame house supported by four-by-fours. "It started as a hairline fracture, and it's gotten progressively worse."

Says Bennett: "I am really afraid of my kitchen -- it looks like it may separate from the house at any time. I'm 85 years old and on a small Social Security income. I can take care of my house, but when something catastrophic happens, I don't know."

Natural erosion?

County geohydrologist Kevin Koepenick blames the problem on natural erosion or a slope failure in the hilly town, possibly associated with sewers, septic systems and storm-water runoff. The soil is layered with gravel and sand, making it more prone to erosion.

Herbert said a neighbor battled a similar problem in 1983. But Koepenick said that damage appeared to stem from a mudslide.

As for Herbert's problem, Koepenick said: "If he's trying to blame the county or state, he's going to have to prove his case. At this point, it appears to be due to natural slope failure."

Blaming I-95

But Herbert believes the fissures are a result of poor environmental planning in the 1970s before the construction of I-95, about a mile from Viaduct Avenue. County reports indicate a change in ground water levels in Relay after the road was built, Herbert said.

Herbert has hired geologist Bill Carnes to study the slope failure. Carnes said he plans to have a report in February.

SHA engineers who inspected Viaduct Avenue recently say there's a slim chance that the interstate could have contributed to Relay's sinking.

"It's unlikely," said Dave Martin, SHA's chief of engineering geology. "If I-95 was in trouble, you would figure there was a connection. You need to look a little closer to your home than I-95."

Historic district

About a 10-minute drive from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Relay is named for the relays of horses that used to pull trains in the pre-steam era.

Known for the famous Thomas Viaduct, an arching stone bridge that sweeps across the Patapsco River, the area was once home to scores of Baltimore & Ohio Railroad workers. In 1996, the County Council placed it on the county's list of historic districts.

Kathy Sweet, chairwoman of the Relay historic district, said she plans to appeal to the county's Landmark Preservation Commission to help the area and its homes.

"We'll ask them to help us in preventing further deterioration of the properties," Sweet said. "Because of our historic status, the homeowner is not allowed to let their home go into demolition by decay -- and this is certainly beyond a homeowner's scope."

Roe Davis, a community conservation official for the county, said she visited Viaduct Avenue and was surprised to find the asphalt rolled into a huge hump. Two weeks ago, she alerted public works crews, which made repairs. But Davis is concerned that might be a temporary solution to a larger problem.

'An intractable problem'

"They are facing an intractable problem," Davis said. "They live on property in the county and on the edge of state park and are possibly being impacted by a federal project. So where do you go? "

Until someone finds some answers, Herbert will continue to bolster his crumbling house with strong wooden supports. As winter's chill blasted through last week, he pointed to a large chasm in the bricks.

"It's like a battle. Every place I see some damage, I jack it up," he said. "I'm in the twilight of my years here -- when you get past age 70, you don't need this."

Pub Date: 12/29/98

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