ANNAPOLIS — Jennifer Nelson was planning a funeral for a neighbor in September 2018 when she learned some concerning news.
A sinkhole had opened under her neighbor’s house at 25 Hamilton Ave. in Frederick. Her home — the one she grew up in and purchased from her mother — at 27 Hamilton Ave. wasn’t as damaged, but it raised concerns about whether her property was also at risk.
“On Sept. 11, 2018, our lives went from the normal hectic … to being flipped upside down in a matter of minutes,” Nelson told the House’s Environment and Transportation Committee at a bill hearing this week. “A large sinkhole had opened up under my next door neighbor’s home … swallowing most of the house and the contents inside.”
Nelson had cared for her elderly neighbor, helping him through hospice care before he died in August 2018. Because of her care, he gave her that house.
But roughly two weeks later, it was mostly destroyed by a sinkhole, which may have happened because of its position near a quarry, and the house sitting on karst terrain, a mixture of limestone and similar materials.
To combat issues like that, Del. Carol Krimm (D-Frederick) introduced a bill, House Bill 178, that would require real estate agents or homeowners to disclose that a property is prone to sinkholes opening up under their homes.
More specifically, the bill notes that these properties are in “zones of dewatering influence” (ZOI), which means they have been marked by the state’s Department of the Environment as prone to sinkholes.
Krimm noted in written testimony that since the ZOI was designated, 114 of 135 properties in Frederick have transferred ownership at least once.
“Disclosure of this potential danger is necessary for informed decision making by a potential property purchaser, whether residential or non-residential,” Krimm wrote. “Sinkholes are a reality in Frederick, and in other communities with ZOI designations. There must be a duty to inform of the potential of such an occurrence for the safety of our residents, our business owners, and their patrons.”
Tracy Coleman, deputy director of public works for the city of Frederick, told committee members that in cases of sinkholes opening up under homes — and lying in ZOIs — the Department of the Environment visits the site and determines if there is “proximate cause” involved with a nearby quarry.
Coleman said in Nelson and her neighbor’s case, MDE determined the quarry was responsible for the sinkhole. Representatives from that quarry have appealed the decision, and it’s still in litigation, she said.
Nelson, whose family has been relocated three times since the incident, declined to talk about the bill or case after the hearing, citing the litigation.
Bill Castelli, a senior vice president and lobbyist with Maryland Realtors, was in favor of the bill. But there are challenges to implementing it, he said, because the maps of ZOI from the MDE are not easy to find online.
The disclosure should be akin to a “buyer notice” when someone sells their property, Castelli said.
“We think it should be a simple disclosure that would catch the attention of the buyer and direct them to MDE to investigate it further, and then it would allow them to discover whether the property is in [the zone], or whether the property is out,” Castelli said.
Jennifer Minnick, director of housing for Habitat of Humanity for Frederick County, said in written testimony that Habitat bought a property at 23 Hamilton Ave. without knowing whether it was in a zone of dewatering influence.
Habitat helped Keysha Saxon, a single mother with three children, buy the house, noting it is handicap-accessible for her son, who uses a wheelchair.
“Where would Keysha and her family go if a sinkhole was discovered or in the process of forming? We cannot re-house them without having the funds to do so,” Minnick wrote.
She said after the hearing that it’s important for potential homeowners to know whether the risk of sinkholes exists, so they can look into buying insurance.
“There’s not too many situations where we’re required to step in and take care of something, but if something comes up and out of the ground, then it’s our responsibility to take care of that issue,” Minnick said.