Hamilton Ave Sinkhole

Barricades block the sidewalk and a portion of Hamilton Avenue in Frederick in September 2018. The dirt under the house collapsed, prompting officials to condemn it.

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.

Follow Steve Bohnel on Twitter: @Steve_Bohnel.

Steve Bohnel is the county government reporter for the Frederick News-Post. He can be reached at sbohnel@newspost.com. He graduated from Temple University, with a journalism degree in May 2017, and is a die-hard Everton F.C. fan.

(5) comments

cleanrunoff

Areas with limestone like Florida and Frederick Co. have sinkholes. Areas on fault lines like California have earthquakes. Areas along the water have floods. Areas near volcanoes have lava and ash (Hawaii). Areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts have hurricanes. The California hills have mudslides and fires. All of these things are common knowledge- not secret, not hidden from buyers. One would like to assume that when a person makes the largest financial commitment of their life, they would make some modicum of effort to educate themselves on the potential risks that come with ownership. The Govt. cannot control the physical processes of the Earth. But it seems that most folks do not consider any of these factors and known hazards, relying on other factors to inform their purchasing decisions, such as access to dining and entertainment, or preferred school districts, or cultural compatibility. And that is fine. But- the buyer MUST acknowledge, accept, and plan for the down side of their chosen living area. I should not have to bail out a homeowner why buys in a karst area, or in a flood plain, or on the waterfront, or in a lava flow. These folks should self-insure. The hazards are no secret. No secret. Evaluate the risk against the reward and take the ride- but absorb the risk like a responsible person.

mrnatural1

Mommm! Cleanrunoff says I have to pick up my mess. He's a meanie! I don't wan him to babysit anymore! [wink]

Well written. I agree, in principle. People should be responsible, do their homework, and insure themselves against any foreseeable hazards. If they purchase a house that is on the edge of a crumbling cliff along the coast and the house crashes to the beach below, oh well. Personal problem.

Just to be clear though, in this case, apparently many of these sinkholes are man-made, caused by dewatering -- and that is often done by quarries. So while it's true that the gov't has no control over where and when sinkholes form, if it can be shown that a quarry is responsible, then according to state law they are held liable for all damages. Of course, insurance against catastrophic risk is always advisable, but in this case it may not be necessary -- at least in “zones of dewatering influence” (ZOI) near quarries. Or, perhaps an insurance company would be willing to charge less for a "sinkhole" policy/rider knowing that there is a good chance that the quarry would be forced to pay. That would allow the homeowner to get access to funds sooner, while the ins co and quarry battle it out.

To people who study geography -- or even anyone reading this article and looking at the photo of a huge sinkhole under a house -- it may seem incredibly obvious that *OF COURSE* there is a risk of sinkholes in this area. However, it is understandable that many people, especially first-time home buyers, might not be aware of the possibility of sinkholes. Everyone (OK, almost everyone) knows that, as you said:

"Areas on fault lines like California have earthquakes. Areas along the water have floods. Areas near volcanoes have lava and ash (Hawaii). Areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts have hurricanes. The California hills have mudslides and fires. All of these things are common knowledge- not secret, not hidden from buyers."

That's absolutely true. In fact, all of those natural disasters make the news, and social media. They are common knowledge. However, it doesn't follow that everyone is aware that a house in Frederick could be swallowed by a sinkhole. That probably would not even occur to most people who have lived here all of their lives and are aware that we have the occasional sinkhole in FredCo -- let alone someone from out of the area. It's not a common occurrence, and definitely not on the level of raging forest fires burning entire towns to the ground and scorching millions or acres of forest, or hurricanes wiping out hundreds or thousands of homes and causing widespread flooding.

As I said, I completely agree with your comment, generally speaking. Before someone builds a house on a barrier island along the Atlantic Coastline, it is reasonable to expect them to be aware that there are these things called "hurricanes" that happen on a regular basis and therefore they should either a) have insurance that they purchase outright (not subsidized by taxpayers), or b) be prepared to accept the loss if/when their house -- or the entire island -- is wiped out.

Regardless, in all cases potential buyers should be made aware of all known hazards/dangers/defects/planned construction, etc, -- including the potential for sinkholes. Full disclosure.

I'm totally on board with not having to bail out a buyer who has been fully informed and insists on purchasing a home in spite of the hazards -- like McMansions on barrier islands.

Is anyone suggesting that taxpayers bail out the owner of the home that's the subject of the article -- or were you just speaking generally?

mrnatural1

Here's some info from the MDE that indicates that if mining operations are responsible for sinkholes and lost water supplies due to "dewatering" they must compensate the landowner:

https://mde.maryland.gov/programs/Pressroom/Pages/393.aspx

Quote:

"Limestone mining operations are required to repair sinkholes in the ZOI if MDE determines that the sinkhole resulted from a quarry dewatering. Companies also are required to replace a water supply that fails due to declining water levels caused by quarry operations at no cost to the property owner. If the sinkhole damage cannot be restored to its pre-subsidence condition, the quarry owner must pay monetary compensation to the property owner. MDE will investigate any complaint of sinkhole or water supply failure in the area of the zone."

Fiver

I wish this linked to the maps of ZOI from MDE.

KMRD1

The whole city of Frederick is sitting on a sink hole. Along with all this renewed flooding and the Ron Young flood control plan not be updated, you will find this happening more and in places of Frederick that never had them before.

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