Owners hold breath over property values

Balto. County neighbors anxious after gasoline leak at Exxon station


Nancy Welms bought a home in Jacksonville 25 years ago and watched her investment grow with the rising prices of houses and land around her. She figured that she could sell in a few years and have a nice cushion for her retirement.

But when 25,000 gallons of gasoline leaked into the ground from an Exxon station a half-mile away, the 58-year-old office manager felt her plans slipping away.

"It's just an old farmhouse on an acre," she says. "But it's my acre. It's my nest egg. And right now, I couldn't give it away."

Few things are as frightening to the typical homeowner as the prospect of declining property values. In Welms' northern Baltimore County neighborhood, the most recent in a line of communities to contend with environmental questions, the notion of gasoline in well water is the worry.

Experts say environmental issues can give buyers pause, at least in the short run. But many say the value of tainted real estate tends to recover over time.

Real estate agent Roger Sherman seems to be only half joking when he says houses could be sold in the shadow of a volcano once the lava stops flowing, as long as the area is desirable. He laughs when he adds that real estate agents would probably point out, "The ground is nice and warm."

In places such as Elkridge, where one neighborhood felt the effects of being built on a former landfill, and even in New York's Love Canal, perhaps the best known of any polluted community, the housing market bounced back. Homeowners contend with radon in Central Maryland and nitrates in wells on the Eastern Shore but haven't seen their property values drop, said Herb Meade, an official with the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Nonetheless, some in Jacksonville with for-sale signs in their front yards are so worried that they don't want their names in the newspaper, fearing that they could be undercut in sales negotiations.

Said one woman: "The first question everyone asks is, `How's your water?'"

Even those who aren't selling are nervously watching how long neighbors' homes sit on the market.

Since ExxonMobil reported the leak from an underground storage tank in mid-February, gasoline has showed up in the wells of two businesses in Four Corners, as the community crossroads is known. Elevated levels of a gasoline additive have been found in four residential wells.

And some say concerns that contamination might show up - perhaps months later - could make area houses, all of which rely on groundwater, a tough sell.

The effect on property values is most pronounced shortly after environmental issues arise, according to experts.

"You're dealing with uncertainty in the beginning," says Peter Morici, a professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and a former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission. "Since people generally only buy one house, they're very risk-adverse."

Sherman says that sellers are required to disclose to buyers pertinent information, such as environmental problems.

There are about 30 houses for sale in the Jacksonville-Phoenix area, according to the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., which tracks homes sold through the multiple-listing service. They range from a $369,999 three-bedroom house on slightly more than one acre to a $1.7 million, seven-bedroom house on 36 acres, according to the MRIS. The average list price is $806,674.

Since the leak was reported, buyers have put contracts on two homes near Four Corners, according to Debi Meushaw, manager of the Coldwell Banker office on Jarrettsville Pike.

"Right now, we have a lot of questions being asked," says Meushaw. "But we haven't seen a huge amount of wells testing positive yet."

And because homeowners and buyers often wait until spring to sell and buy, Meushaw says, "I don't think we've seen the impact yet. I don't think we'll see it until May or June."

Residents of the Upper Crossroads area of Fallston had concerns about property values in 2004 when the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, known as MTBE, showed up in residential wells.

Even now, some Fallston residents are nervous about the situation. Kendl P. Philbrick, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, says that when he listed his house in the area for sale, a neighbor immediately asked, "Do you know something we don't?"

For the record, Philbrick says he's selling his house, less than a half-mile from where the Exxon station was in Upper Crossroads, because he and his wife don't want to have to keep up with the lawn and garden another summer.

"I understand how people feel. I had the same feelings of anxiety, anger, and concern. ... I worried about the health impacts and the property impacts," Philbrick says. But he says he never saw a major bust in the Upper Crossroads housing market.

"As far as houses selling, it was brisk when it was brisk," he says. "By and large, I think the community is through the worst of it."

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