Bill requires home hazard warnings

Environmental measure unnecessary, builders say

April 14, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Maryland homebuyers will gain some warning of environmental hazards like the methane gas that forced evacuation of several new homes in Elkridge last year and sparked a $75 million lawsuit, say advocates of a bill enacted by the General Assembly April 7.

The legislation survived opposition from builders, who helped kill several other consumer-oriented measures this year -- such as builder registration -- and who say the new law will require useless extra paperwork.

"New homes in Maryland are safe, and anytime there is any kind of environmental hazard that might pose a threat to homeowners, it's identified and removed during the land development process," said Thomas M. Ballentine, director of government affairs for the Maryland Home Builders Association.

The new law, he said, will merely add to the 30 pages of paperwork in a new-home contract.

Sponsors and those involved in the Elkridge incident strongly disagree.

If what Ballentine says is true, "then how do you explain the methane problems in Howard County?" said the bill's sponsor, Del. A. Wade Kach, a Baltimore County Republican. "I think that sometimes we don't give consumers the credit they deserve."

Howard Dels. Shane Pendergrass and Elizabeth Bobo, both Democrats, co-sponsored the bill. Kach says he'll fight next year to require registration of new-home builders, a measure some say is tantamount to licensing.

In the Elkridge case, neither Calvert Ridge developer John Liparini nor builder Ryan Homes told buyers that tree stumps and other rubble had once been dumped on the property. That material apparently generated methane, which seeped into several basements, causing three families to leave. Those families have received new homes, but others in the development have filed suit.

County officials said they believe the developer and builder followed the proper procedures. With the new legislation, buyers will have more protection, some residents say.

"The issue is that new-home builders are no longer afforded the luxury of not having to disclose the environmental history of the land," said Eric Muller, a Calvert Ridge resident who is trying to sell his home and move.

As the owner of an existing home, he said, he must under current law disclose whatever he knows about the land under his home to any buyer. New-home builders should have to do the same, Muller said.

The new law, which would take effect in January, allows builders to choose another option -- to "make no representation" on environmental hazards. But Kach and supporters say that would be a red flag to buyers, warning them that something may be hidden.

Muller's home is equipped with a methane alarm and several pipes to drain gas away from the basement, but he said the gas is unstable and often moves underground after storms.

Lead was also found on the site in January, Muller said, adding that now that most of the pristine open land in suburbia is spoken for, problems like those at Calvert Ridge are more likely to occur.

Pamela Marks, an attorney who represents the Calvert Ridge plaintiffs, said she wanted a stronger law, which would hold builders accountable if they "knew or reasonably should have known" about hazards beneath the ground.

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