Cattail Creek residents voted 90-3 to accept a Howard County negotiated settlement with their developers over a nightmarish, years-long sewage disposal problem. But now they face a new issue.
The residents have dropped their private lawsuit as part of the agreement that will pay each participant thousands of dollars, but one of the development partners for the upscale Glenwood retirement community is demanding they pay for operating the replacement sewage system built in February 2009 to replace one that never worked.
Residents said J. Thomas Scrivener, one of three development partners with J.P. Bolduc and Donald Reuwer Jr., is pressing residents to pay $110,000 for operating the new system. Scrivener did not return a call seeking comment.
"I was furious, but what good is it?" asked Renee Parcover, president of the condominium association. "It doesn't benefit us not to settle."
She and several dozen residents who waited for the final count celebrated after the tally Wednesday night, despite the new threat from Scrivener. "Scrivener swore they did not intend to sue us, but he wouldn't sign a paper," Parcover said about a meeting between the developer and the association board last week. "He'll either sue us or not," she said. The residents offered to pay $21,000 for operation of the plant since March, she said.
Developers' attorney Robert B. Schulman, who had initially labeled the county suit "an absolute political witch hunt," said the issue now is perfectly clear.
"They are obligated to reimburse for operating their sewer service," he said. "We haven't agreed on a number. If we can't work out an agreement, we'll keep our options open." He said any view that the request for payment is insult on top of injury is "completely off base. Documents they agreed to obligate them to pay for the wastewater plant. It's an obligation they owe," Schulman said.
The residents have complained for years about odors and road damage from trucks hauling away sewage, their inability to sell their homes and move and a list of other failings from a front gate that doesn't work to a promised 9-hole golf course that was never built. Howard County intervened with a consumer protection lawsuit against Scrivener and Reuwer and NVR Homes, parent company of Ryan Homes, the builder, in September 2008. Even after the new sewage plant was completed, residents complained of new odors as recently as last fall, though that problem has stopped, they said.
The unusual shared septic system was required to build the 25 detached homes and 68 "villa" townhouses because it is in an area not served by public water and sewer systems. At the time, county government had regulatory control over this kind of project, though laws have been changed as the result of the problems it caused.
Reuwer offered no reaction to the vote Thursday and said he was "not invited" to Scrivener's meeting with the residents' board. "I'm in the dark," he said.
Under the agreement to settle the county's suit, the residents will drop their private suit, which is still pending against NVR. In addition, each resident who opted in will get $3,803.23 in cash, plus relief on $5,643 in sewage fees over the next 28 years. Fifteen residents who paid up to $25,000 extra to live next to the golf course that was never built will split $29,900. The county will get $100,000 from the developer to oversee and repair the current septic system as needed over the next five years, and $43,000 to move a misplaced sewer pipe. A $350,000 performance bond is to guarantee the new plant works.
County Attorney Margaret Ann Nolan, who attended the vote count with Rebecca Bowman, the county's consumer affairs administrator, said the county could not protect the residents from possible future suits because her office is limited by charter to representing county government, not private groups or individuals.
"We didn't settle the association's case. We settled the county's case," Nolan said. Her suit was intended to defend the law and the public interest. "Our interest in this is enforcing the consumer protection laws of the county."
Addressing the residents, Nolan said, "The county is so happy we've gotten to this day and you have the relief you deserve."
Parcover said it was "unfortunate" that the county couldn't protect the residents from further legal strife, but she and others said they are happy the main issues are resolved.
"I think this is a wonderful day. We hope the whole community comes together," said a smiling Donna Beresch. "I think the county did the best they could do. We were very fortunate they were with us. If he sues us," she said about Scrivener, "that shows his character." Bill Porton, another resident, agreed. "We're grateful," he said, both for the county's efforts and those of Howard Goldberg, the association's private lawyer.
Before the vote, resident Paul Casner expressed another common opinion. "The fact of the matter is the developer fixed the system and it's working fine. It's time to move forward. Being in the middle of a lawsuit puts a real stigma on the community. I think we're in pretty good shape. I feel really good about it."
Mike Lewis was more cautious, however. "We are releasing them from any further suit, but we are not getting any release from them. We are not being given any option here," he said.