Storm-drain repair funding feared at risk

City, pool club must agree on liability to start project

State grant expires Jan. 12

At issue is uncertainty about pollutants at site


December 17, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Nobody knows for certain what lies near the storm drain at the base of the Admiral Heights Swim Club in Annapolis -- and that uncertainty is holding up a $500,000 drain renovation project intended to prevent runoff and flooding.

About half of the funding is from a state grant that expires Jan. 12, and some fear that the city and pool officials will not reach an agreement in time.

"I'm in panic mode," said Evan Belaga, president of the nonprofit Weems Creek Conservancy, which worked to secure some of the grants. "I can't believe three years of hard effort are coming down to this."

Environmentalists and city officials believe there's probably nothing more than scrap metal, plywood and other urban debris near the storm drain. But nobody can swear that more dangerous substances aren't at the site.

A drainage pipe measuring 4 feet in diameter runs through the property of the privately owned club that overlooks Weems Creek.

On rainy days, so much brown, silty water gushes from the pipe into the creek "it looks like the Mississippi," said Belaga, whose house overlooks the creek.

The torrent of water picks up more dirt as it washes down the creek by carrying away soil from the creek's edge. Sometimes, the water around docks close to the drainpipe turns into a muddy soup, making it nearly impossible to dock boats.

The water "is steadily cutting a deeper and deeper canyon and carrying all that dirt away," said Stephen B. Carr, an environmental consultant to the city.

Carr has done numerous surveys along the creek and believes most of the debris at the base of the swim club belongs to a farmer who once owned the property. "I doubt there's anything dangerous down there," he said.

Annapolis officials have budgeted nearly $250,000 for the project and are willing to bear all of the costs to clean the storm drain area, which they believe will take a few months.

But the city cannot accept liability for future problems, if the renovation were to find additional pollutants, said Mayor Ellen O. Moyer.

"It's ridiculous," she said. "That doesn't make sense."

Swim club officials also are unwilling to accept responsibility, and so far have refused to give the city permission to do the work.

Club lawyer Thomas M. Hennessey declined to comment, but Christian Zazzali, a pool bondholder, said the other bondholders are calling for a meeting to try to strike a deal with the city. Zazzali said he believes the club and the city should share liability.

"If there is something down there, the pool is going to have to clean it up anyway, so we should take some responsibility," Zazzali said.

Alderwoman Sheila M. Tolliver, who represents the area, said she wants the work to be done but that the club shouldn't have to bear all liability.

"I believe the city has it in its power to grant relief so the risk becomes the risk of all of the citizens, not just the pool board," she said.

Tolliver said she was concerned that the grant would expire soon but said that "you can't let money drive policy."

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