Baltimore County officials are set to order the demolition of two houses under construction -- a rare, if not unprecedented, move that follows complaints that the homes were being built too close to a stream.
Although the county had given approval for construction, a newly conducted engineering study found that the home sites are within an environmentally sensitive area that is off-limits to building, officials said yesterday. As a result, they said, the owner of the property, which is near White Marsh Mall, will all but surely be forced to remove what has been built: two concrete foundations, one supporting wood framing.
County officials faulted a previous report, supplied by a developer who obtained building permits for the lots, and said they intend to file a complaint with state licensing authorities against the engineer responsible for that study. But a county councilman who had raised questions about the project said yesterday that the matter could be a sign of problems in the county approval process.
"You've got to wonder now, `Do some things fall through the cracks?'" Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder said.
Four top county officials said yesterday that they could not recall any previous cases in which a builder was required to demolish a partly built house. They said they would not grant any waivers to the prohibition against building in or near a flood plain, meaning that the houses would have to be removed.
Houses built close to streams can threaten water quality, and the homes are at risk of being flooded, officials said.
"We want this issue resolved, given the safety issue," said Timothy M. Kotroco, the county's director of permits and development management.
It was unclear yesterday how much money such a decision might cost the builder, Gemcraft Homes, which bought the lots after they were approved for development. Attempts to obtain comment from company officials yesterday were unsuccessful.
The structures sit on Shanti Lane, a small cul-de-sac less than a mile southwest of White Marsh Mall.
The first study of the properties, performed by a developer who installed a sewer line in the area, outlined a flood plain 38 feet wide. Later, as another developer was hoping to build on the lots, Merritt Development Consultants submitted a study that showed a much smaller flood plain, according to county records.
Developer Joseph M. Moran was issued building permits based on that study, the records show. He later received a fee from Gemcraft Homes for obtaining the permits, according to a Gemcraft official, and the home building company bought the lots for $200,000 each.
Complaints began shortly after the county issued building permits in 2004.
Neighbors, including some who said the county had turned down other requests to build near the stream, complained about the houses' proximity to the water. County officials visited the site, ordered work stopped and sent their own engineers to determine the flood plain.
Yesterday, county officials said they lack the resources to perform their own studies and that they accept flood plain reports stamped by state-licensed engineers. They said the second developer's map superseded the earlier study.
Officials said they intend to file a complaint with the state Department of Labor Licensing and Regulation against the engineer who produced the developer's map. Officials say it's the first time in their memory they will take such a step.
That engineer, named in records as Geoffrey Tizard, was hired by Merritt Development Consultants, county officials said. Repeated attempts to obtain comment from Tizard, Moran and an official from Merritt Development Consultants were unsuccessful.
Tizard has been licensed with the state as an engineer since 1987, and has no complaints against him, said Elizabeth Williams, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor Licensing and Regulation.
Merritt Development has been licensed as a land surveyor since 2005, and no complaints have been filed against it, she said.
Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr., said yesterday, "There are going to be a lot of fingers pointing," but said the county followed its code in approving plans for the houses.
Bartenfelder, the councilman, has raised questions involving a longtime county employee who recently left his job to work for Moran. County officials said the employee was not directly involved in the approval of the houses.
Bartenfelder questioned why the county did not act sooner to stop construction. "I was inquiring about it when the first shovel went in the ground," said Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat. "It took a an awful long time for somebody to react."
Mohler, the spokesman for Smith, said county officials ordered the builder to stop construction days after the problem was brought to their attention.
James Barlow, a homeowner on the other side of the creek who opposed the houses being built so close to the stream, said he's "quite satisfied" at the prospect of the houses being removed.
"At least they're following their guidelines, and I guess there isn't any favoritism shown to any big developers," he said. "If they are going to come down, that's great."