Utility warns Broad Creek building owners sites must meet county code or risk being leveled

Harford cottages could be razed

October 22, 2007|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,special to the sun

Terry Hanley is fond of his cottage on the water, a cozy four-bedroom house surrounded by soaring oaks and maples tucked into the bank of Broad Creek.

"They are Harford County's best secret treasures," said Hanley, who lives year-round in Bel Air but spends many weekends with his family at the cottage, one of about 170 along the shores of Broad Creek and the Susquehanna River.

But Hanley's getaway and the other cottages, some that have been on the water for more than 60 years, face an uncertain future as the county begins what an official called one of the largest home inspection efforts in Harford history.

Exelon Generation Co., the utility that owns the land beneath the cottages, warned residents by certified letter last week that some of the homes might not meet county codes and might have to be razed.

The community was established in the 1920s as a secluded enclave of rustic cabins built on land set aside by the power company that built the nearby Conowingo Dam. Many of the homes along Broad Creek and the Susquehanna have undergone a slow metamorphosis.

Some remain bereft of modern conveniences, resembling hunting cabins. But others - such as Hanley's - have gotten aluminum siding, running water (though not indoor plumbing) and modern kitchens. Some are year-round homes.

Much of the work, however, was done without permits, and possibly in violation of an agreement that they would remain seasonal residences, according to county officials.

The county discovered the changes last month when a complaint about raw sewage leaking into the creek brought inspectors to the neighborhood, said Roxanne Lynch, a spokeswoman for the county. When inspectors arrived, they found eight cabins where work was being done without proper building permits.

The letters said the company will inspect all of the homes to determine whether they comply with the county code. Exelon plans to hire engineers to conduct the inspections.

None of the houses should have indoor plumbing, according to the letter. The county also said there are no permits on record for water systems in the homes.

If the cottages cannot be brought into compliance, the owners were informed, their leases would be terminated. In such cases, owners would be forced to move out and the cottages would be removed.

Irked homeowners say the county action is unfair.

"Deal with those eight people and leave the rest of us alone," said Hanley, the 42-year-old head of a Bel Air mortgage business who also serves as the town's mayor.

Hanley accuses the county of operating with a dual standard system - one for the waterfront homes and one for the rest of the county. On any given day, he said, he could find a hundred homes in Bel Air where improvements were made without the required building permits.

"Maybe they should be inspecting every house in the county," he said.

But county officials say they do not have the staff for such an effort.

Exelon was fined $2,000 for the eight violations, according to Rich Truitt, deputy director of inspections, licensing and permits.

"We look at Exelon as the property owner and they have to take the steps to correct the problems," he said.

Exelon passed the fine onto the cabin owners. Under terms of its lease with cottage owners, the company has the authority to inspect the premises at any time.

The company informed cottage owners that each property will be inspected and necessary corrections would be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Exelon officials say it is too soon to say what inspectors will be looking for.

"We have to see what the county decides, what rules we will have to meet," said Dora Y. Lee, a company official.

Jan Nethen, whose family has owned a cottage on Broad Creek since 1961, said the cottage dwellers are "caught in a Catch 22."

"If they say we are not allowed to have running water in our homes, a lot of people are going to be in trouble," he said.

The community dates to the construction of the Conowingo Dam, which was completed in 1928. In exchange for community approval of the construction project - the second-largest hydroelectric plant in the country at that time - the power company granted residents the right to build seasonal homes on the Conowingo Pond above the dam and on Broad Creek, which flows into the Susquehanna.

Some of the buildings are rustic cabins. Some can be reached only by four-wheel drive vehicles or by boat. Others are more elaborate structures with kitchens, bedrooms and a range of amenities. Hanley said that one cottage near his recently sold for $250,000.

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