Settle or sue? That's the question facing residents of the Villas at Cattail Creek, an upscale condominium community in western Howard County that has been troubled since inception with a sewage system that never worked and a development team they don't trust.
About 70 residents met Monday night with their lawyer, Howard Goldberg, and a group of Howard County officials to consider what might be the biggest decision they make in the long-running ordeal — whether to accept a settlement that the county worked out for the 93-home community for seniors or go back to court on their own.
The shared septic system has been replaced with one that works, and a county consumer protection lawsuit filed in September 2008 has been settled. County Attorney Margaret Ann Nolan said her staff spent thousands of hours on the matter and several times reached a seeming impasse with the developers, Donald Reuwer Jr. and J. Thomas Scrivener, and builder NVR Inc., parent of Ryan Homes.
"A lot of this reflects the basic mistrust between the parties," Nolan said. The biggest sticking point, she said, was the developers' fear that any payment to the Cattail Creek residents might in effect help finance their lawsuit. Nolan said the county's position was that "we're not going to settle our case without making sure money flows to the community."
Resident Donna Berusch said, "It's a disgrace" that the homes were ever allowed to be built without a functioning sewage system and that money cannot completely compensate for "the personal pain they have caused." Residents who need to move to assisted living haven't been able to sell and move, she said.
When built in 2001, the septic system was regulated solely by state law. After the problem became clear, laws were passed giving the county regulatory authority over similar systems and requiring a performance bond from builders to shield homebuyers from a system failure.
But the county's lawsuit noted other problems at Cattail Creek, including a front gate that didn't work and a nine-hole golf course that was promised but never built.
If the private lawsuit is dropped and more than half the residents accept the settlement, each would receive $3,803.23, plus relief on $5,643 in sewerage fees over the next 28 years. The county would get $100,000 to oversee and repair the current septic system as needed for the next five years and $43,000 to relocate a misplaced sewer pipe. A $350,000 performance bond would guarantee that the sewage plant works, and 15 buyers who paid a premium to live on the nine-hole golf course would share $29,900.
If less than half opt in, the sewer pipe would be moved and the county would get $25,000 for legal costs and $1,903 for each resident who does opt in to oversee the plant. And the private lawsuit would continue.
County public works officials said their inspections show that the new sewage system is working properly and should, if maintained, last for many years.
Some residents expressed anger and said the county-arranged deal falls far short, while others just wanted an end to the matter. A community vote is scheduled June 2.
"It's down to one issue and one issue only. It's all about the money," Goldberg told the group.
"A lot of people want to sell their homes, but they can't the way things are," said Renee Parcover, president of the homeowners' association. "I only see three choices: We go ahead [with the private suit] with no guarantees and more expenses. We do nothing — we'd only lose then. We settle, opt in to the county's suit, and get money.
"This settlement offers you more money than any other settlement we've been offered to date," she said.
County officials said the settlement would cost the developers $600,000 to $1 million, depending on how many residents opt in.
Joan Moskowitz, who, like the others, endured years of heavy trucks hauling raw sewage past their homes up to five times per day, praised the county's efforts.
"Most of the residents appreciate everything the county has done for us," she said after the 90-minute meeting at the development's community center.
Not everyone agreed, however.
"This settlement is getting us 5 cents on the dollar," said resident Bob Einziger. "I would have liked to see something better than a nickel on the dollar. She told us she would make us whole," he said of county consumer protection director Rebecca Bowman, who attended the meeting.
Al Abashian said he's spent $30,000 on his own lawsuit and that he can't see giving that up now. "I feel like I have been the sacrificial lamb," he said, by blazing a legal trail for others to follow.
"When we bought our homes, we were told it [the shared septic system] was state of the art," said resident Sue Folks. "Is this [new] septic system state of the art? The best money can buy?"
Others complained about the damage to community roads by the heavy sewage removal trucks and the larger size of the new treatment building. Marc Charmatz wanted ironclad protection from any future lawsuit by the developers against residents.
"You bought homes in an area with this type of facility," Goldberg said. "You are entitled to be frustrated." But he said a new lawsuit by the developer is highly unlikely. "It's more likely they're going to sue you if you don't settle," he said. "Anybody can sue anybody for anything."
An angry Julia Stanerro tried to quiet one critic to speed up the meeting.
"No, we're not getting what we want, but we're getting something," she said later. "I would just like to see this end so we can move on."
Nolan said the county's lawsuit is settled, no matter what the residents do. If they are not satisfied, they can pursue their private suit.
"Go for it," he said. It's your choice."