Out of our backyard, Essex couple pleads

September 30, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,sun reporter

When Baltimore County decided to build a sewer line through their yard, James and Debbie Schneider knew there would be noise and dust. The peach trees would be knocked down and the grass torn up.

But then, the Essex couple says, the crews bulldozed the kids' pool and the brick outdoor grill, built a 20-foot mountain of smelly sludge and parked a large crane next door.

James Schneider warned the county not to get too close to the home's septic system. The crew accidentally destroyed it.

The project was supposed to take a year. It's going on two.

"It's just been a nightmare," said James Schneider, a 38-year-old construction worker who also helps on his father's farm. "It's been one thing after another."

The Schneiders' lawyer, Jack R. Sturgill Jr., agrees. "This has been a total trampling of these people's rights and a complete destruction of their property," he said.

Baltimore County officials say they will replace everything the crew has broken, including the pool and barbecue pit, and eventually will connect the home to the public sewer system.

"When we depart, we intend to leave everything in excellent condition," said David Fidler, a spokesman for the county's Department of Public Works.

The contractors are installing a 54-inch pressurized sewer line - known as a force main - from the Stemmers Run pumping station to the Back River Treatment Plant, Fidler said.

When finished, the new line will carry the sewage of about half the county's population - or about 72 million gallons of waste each day - according to Fidler.

The $26.5 million project is scheduled to be complete in January but could be delayed several more months if weather interrupts the work, Fidler said.

Because of the location of the existing sewer lines, engineers determined that the new force main needed to run next to the Schneiders' two-story white house, built in 1915.

"It had to be done," Fidler said. "It's for the community's greater good. But [the family] will be recompensed."

Baltimore County offered $7,931 for about a half-acre of the Schneiders' property, just off Diamond Point Road on the Back Neck River, in June 2002, according to correspondence between James Schneider and county officials.

Schneider refused the offer, saying the heavy construction traffic would disturb his family and tenants who rented a smaller house next to his family's, and that he worried the project would damage his septic system.

His house is connected to public water but not to the county's sewer system. The project, though through his yard, doesn't include a connection to his property.

Schneider also told county officials he was concerned about potentially contaminated soil from the Back River being hauled across his yard and that the construction might damage his home's foundation, according to a 2003 letter from the county Department of Permits and Development Management.

In 2004, the portion of the property that the county wanted to use was condemned by the county using "quick take" procedures, according to Sturgill. But the condemnation should have been approved by the council and wasn't, he said.

Fidler said he could not discuss the condemnation aspects of the project because it is being litigated.

Work began on the property in April 2006.

Within the first month, crews had leveled a brick outdoor grill and plowed through the above-ground swimming pool, according to the Schneiders.

As the crews reshaped the steep bank of the Back River along the Schneiders' property into a slope, they created a large mound of muck, at times 20 feet high, in the yard, James Schneider said.

The smelly hill remained in the yard for about six months, he and Sturgill said.

Despite the warnings about the location of the family's underground septic tank, the crews also damaged the septic system, the Schneiders said.

The county said the system was faulty and was draining into the bay. The Schneiders deny that.

After balking at having to repair the system - and after months of raw sewage seeping onto the yard - the county installed a temporary septic tank and absorption trench in March, Sturgill said.

Fidler said the county is planning on connecting the Schneiders' house, along with other homes along Oriole Avenue and Diamond Point Road, to the public sewer system. The county is working on acquiring the rights of way to begin the work, expected to start in the next year, Fidler said.

A large red crane now sits in the Schneiders' yard, along with a portable toilet, construction trailer and dumpster. There's a small swath of grass left, with enough room for a swing set. But the crews generally work from 6:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. and half of the day on Saturday, said Debbie Schneider.

With eight children ranging in age from 5 to 24 years old, not being able to play outside is a big deal, she said.

"There is no peace," said Debbie Schneider. "By the time you do baths and homework, you don't have time to take the kids to the park every day."

Because the Schneiders refused the amount offered by the county for their property, a jury or Circuit Court judge will determine the amount that the county must pay the family. A settlement conference is scheduled for March 2008.

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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