Dennis and Margaret Caughy's picturesque suburban rancher sits so close to the banks of Plumtree Branch they must cross a wooden footbridge to get to their parking pad along Brookmede Road in Ellicott City.
Set among the large lawns and well-kept homes of Valley Mede, a U.S. 40 development west of Chatham Mall built more than 30 years ago, the Caughys' house is in a flood plain.
The young couple was pleasantly surprised last year when, as they contemplated a move to Texas, Howard County officials approached them with an offer to buy their house under a state/local program that removes dwellings from flood plains.
The Caughys and their 2-year-old daughter moved to Dallas in September believing their home was as good as sold, but they got a shock Feb. 8 -- a letter saying state money had been withdrawn and the deal was off.
Now, with a $1,300-a-month mortgage they can't afford, and without the sale proceeds they need to buy a home, they're angry and upset.
"We figure they made us a promise. We were told the money was already appropriated. We trusted them," Caughy said about county officials, who say they were depending on the state.
County Executive James N. Robey acknowledged the Caughys' predicament, but said he isn't ready to buy the house using only county money. "I feel obligated to the extent that I've asked for recommendations on a way to solve this. It's a lot of money," he said.
Despite being in the flood plain, no water has entered the home in the five years the Caughys have owned it, Dennis Caughy said. Neighbors say the small stream rarely overflowed until the past decade, as more homes were built upstream.
"It's reduced the value of my house," complained Donald Shugar, 65, who lives across from the Caughys and blames the county for approving developments upstream that he says have increased water volumes. Shugar, who wants the county to buy his home, has letters from county officials from 1992, when residents petitioned the county to take action, but were told money wasn't available.
"They come out and promise you, but they don't do nothing," he said.
The stream flows south, past Shugar's lawn and under Brookmede Road, heading toward the Caughys home before it turns. Ironically, the twin storm-water pipes that carry the stream under the road also collect branches and debris and restrict the flow enough during heavy storms to keep the Caughys' two-bedroom, no-basement home dry, Shugar and Caughy said. The resulting backup threatens to flood Shugar's garage, Shugar said.
After a meeting between Dennis Caughy and county officials Feb. 25, public works director James M. Irvin said his agency is seeking federal disaster relief funds that may allow the purchase.
"If we do this again, we'll do it differently," he said.
Next time, the county will have a written commitment for state funding before approaching a homeowner, he said.
William F. Parrish Jr., who heads the state Department of the Environment's Flood Hazard Mitigation Section, said the state has been helping buy and move or demolish homes in flood plains since 1980, after widespread flooding from Hurricane Agnes in 1972 and Hurricane David in 1979.
The program has purchased about 500 homes statewide since then, though it became dormant in the early 1990s when money was scarce during the recession, Parrish said. When more flooding occurred in Western Maryland over the past three years, the state began buying homes again, and that's where the money that would have gone to the Caughys ended up.
This year, $969,000 was appropriated for the state's 75 percent share of the purchases, all of which is spent or obligated.
"We could buy four properties in Western Maryland" for the $163,500 appraised price of the Caughy house, Parrish said. One other Howard County home, on Carlinda Avenue in Allview Estates near Columbia, might be purchased, he said, because it could be moved to a dry lot and resold. The net bill would be no more than $25,000, he said.
If federal money can be obtained, Parrish said, it can't be spent until after the Oct. 1 start of the next federal budget year -- bad news for the Caughys.
Parrish says he doesn't think the Caughys have been treated unfairly.
"I think the county was genuine in wanting to carry on with the program. It's just been difficult. I don't think there's any bad guys in this."
The Caughys feel differently. Although a relative is living in the house and keeping it up, they worry that publicity about it being in the flood plain may make it difficult to sell and aren't sure what to do.
The couple decided to move to Texas after the county expressed interest in buying the house, and the Caughys did not try to rent it, even short-term, based on that interest, they said.
"The whole rub is my wife and I have been living in an apartment month to month. We're so furious," Dennis Caughy said.
Pub Date: 3/08/99