Huge North Londonderry Township sinkhole stymies local, state, federal officials

05/12/2013 07:10

sinkhole.jpgBeth Steffan was terrified the night Tropical Storm Lee let loose its deluge on her North Londonderry Township home in 2011.

She watched from her window as her yard disappeared into a sinkhole, just feet from her house. She listened as her home cracked and creaked and tilted toward the gaping hole in what was once a storm water retention pond.

Her husband Brad eventually made it home from Hershey through the flood waters, and they made their escape. But it was two months before their home was deemed safe enough to enter so they could retrieve their belongings.
sinkhole crack.jpgView full sizeEvery wall in the home belonging to Brad and Beth Steffan has cracksMonica von Dobeneck

The house will be torn down soon, too damaged to repair, but the sinkhole remains, and no one knows what to do about it.

The Steffans are not the only ones who are worried. So are their neighbors in their Windsor Crossing development.

The damage is spreading, and neighbors worry about their property values. A home next to the Steffans on Pajabon Drive, owned by Joann Grimm, has already been torn down. Sinkholes are creeping under the fence of property belonging to neighbor Gerald Dougherty.

Neighbors approached Lebanon County Commissioners in April to ask for help. Commissioners said they would contact state and federal officials to see if anything can be done, then convene another meeting.
sinkhole drain.jpgView full sizeThe retention pond was on private property, but drained storm water from the whole Windsor Crossing developmentMonica von Dobeneck

They held that meeting Wednesday. North Londonderry Twp. supervisors, state representative Mauree Gingrich, and representatives of state senator Mike Folmer and U.S. Representative Charlie Dent were there.

Commissioner William Ames opened up the meeting by telling the audience what they had learned: Nothing.

“I have heard nothing new and refreshing,” he said. “There are no new discoveries or anything.”

The government officials said there is nothing they can do to help because the retention pond is on private property, and is therefore the responsibility of the property owner.

“We have hundreds of sinkholes in Lebanon County,” commissioner Jo Ellen Litz said. “If every tax payer asked for help for sinkholes, it would bankrupt the county.”

Although the pond is on the Steffans' property, it drained storm water from all 35 homes in Windsor Crossing and the streets.

Brad Steffan said he knew when he bought the property that he would be responsible for maintaining the retention pond. He thought that meant mowing the grass, not spending a quarter million dollars to repair it. He had already repaired smaller sinkholes from earlier rains at his own expense.

“A retention pond is built to accept the water of the township,” he said. “I unknowingly bought into this. Now I'm caught in this, the neighborhood is caught in this. We're looking to our government to help us.”
“A retention pond is built to accept the water of the township. I unknowingly bought into this. Now I'm caught in this, the neighborhood is caught in this. We're looking to our government to help us.” - property owner Brad Steffan

Steffan said his insurance company paid to build them another home elsewhere, but would not cover damage to the yard. FEMA, which provided money for flood damaged homes after Lee, would also not cover the sinkhole, he said.

Keith Kilgore, solicitor for North Londonderry Twp., suggested forming a homeowners' association and getting everyone to pitch in to repair the sinkhole, and then take over ownership of the property.

Steffan said it could be a hard sell to convince residents farther from the sinkhole to pay thousands of dollars each when there is no guarantee the fix would last.

Loli Thomsen, whose property abuts the Steffans', asked why the development and its storm water management system were approved by the township and county to begin with. She pushed the officials again and again for help.

County officials said the plans met code when they were approved in 2002, so they could not legally reject them. Regulations have become more stringent since, they said.

Litz said the pond was developed for a 100 year flood, but Lee was considered a 500 year flood. It was “an act of God” and not government's responsibility, she said.

She said maybe the state should pass new legislation so this doesn't happen in the future, maybe by making sure the developer or a homeowners association maintains ownership of storm water retention ponds.

Everyone left the meeting feeling frustrated, including the commissioners.

“I feel kind of helpless this afternoon,” Ames said.

Later that afternoon, Beth Steffan went into her old home for the first time in ages, pointing out cracks in the walls, the tilted floor and the jammed doors that won't open. The house was only five years old, and was supposed to be their final home. Neighbors said the Steffans kept their yard maintained impeccably before the damage.

“That was the most scared I've ever been,” Beth Steffans said of that night in September, 2011. “Now when it rains, I can't sleep.”

She said there is no way they can afford to repair the sinkhole. They couldn't even take out a loan against collateral, since the county tax office says their property is now worth nothing.

On Thursday, Thomsen wrote a note to the commissioners saying she would approach her neighbors about forming a homeowners association and putting money into an escrow account for sinkhole repair, but she is looking toward government officials and the developers to do their part. If that doesn't work, she urged them to keep after the Steffans to take care of it.

“It is evident that we have a big, expensive problem that we all, property owners and officials, would like to see fixed as soon as possible,” she said.  PennLive


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