Hazards disclosure law at risk


A 6-month-old law requiring new-house sellers to disclose hazardous materials on their sites is up for repeal at today's Baltimore County Council meeting.

Repeal is favored by the residential-building industry and several council members, who say environmental testing already is done on projects as they are developed and that the law was a hastily considered pre-election bill that adds nothing but paperwork to selling houses.

But that view is opposed by a former council member who sponsored the law and by people who contend that buyers of new houses should have the same rights as those buying older ones.

State law requires sellers of used houses to disclose such conditions to buyers, but exempts sellers of new houses. A bill to add new houses to the state law failed this year in the General Assembly.

The county law was sponsored by former Councilman William A. Howard, a Parkville Republican defeated in the November election. The bill was supported by Richard W. McQuaid, a north county environmental activist and retired chemist, and the Hazelwood Park East Civic Association.

Members of that 400-home Rosedale group are worried what a proposed development for a 13-acre site called McCormick Place along Interstate 95 at Radecke Avenue might turn up, said association secretary William A. Spiegel. The site was used for years as a rubble dump, he said, adding that metal drums are among the junk and debris buried there.

County borings on the site several years ago found no pollution.

"We just want to be 1,000 percent sure what's going on," Mr. Spiegel said. Repealing the new law, he said, "would just be a slap in the face to the people in the community" who worked to have it enacted.

Mr. McQuaid said the duplication argument is "absolutely untrue." He contends that hazardous wastes could go undetected because the county doesn't test water and soil as part of the development process. County environmental chief J. James Dieter said his department asks builders for any information on environmental hazards, but normally does not do its own testing.

The repeal bill is sponsored by two veteran council members, Towson Republican Douglas B. Riley and Perry Hall Democrat Vincent J. Gardina, who also is council chairman. Both voted for the law in October. Dundalk Democrat Louis L. DePazzo, a new member, is the third sponsor. Four votes are needed for passage.

Mr. Riley and Mr. Gardina said the law they supported in October was approved hastily in the superheated political atmosphere weeks before the general election and was not reviewed carefully. They now consider the law duplicative, adding needless paperwork to the business of selling houses.

They and John R. Clark, president of the Baltimore County chapter of the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, said environmental reviews already are required by banks and are done as part of the land development process.

"Nobody took a hard look at it," Mr. Riley said. "It was important to Mr. Howard," he said. A fellow Republican, Mr. Howard then was council president and fighting an uphill battle to retain the seat he ultimately lost to Fullerton Democratic Del. Joseph Bartenfelder.

Mr. Gardina said he changed his mind about the law because he came to believe it was sponsored for political purposes by Mr. Howard.

"Howard put the bill in because the builders were backing Bartenfelder. I thought that was unfair," Mr. Gardina said. But Mr. Bartenfelder said Thursday that he does not favor repeal. "I don't like the idea of repealing something," he said, calling the new law "a safeguard."

Mr. Howard accused the council of kowtowing to the powerful house builders' lobby now that elections are over.

"I did it because this is something I had been working on," Mr. Howard said, "not for political purposes." Mr. Howard, a Realtor, argued that it is unfair to require owners of older houses to disclose environmental hazards and not sellers of new houses. Advocates of repeal, he said "are bought and paid for by the homebuilders."

The house builders began pressing for repeal right after the new council took office Dec. 5. Each member received a three-page letter and packet of supporting material dated Dec. 14 from Thomas M. Ballentine, the association's lobbyist. The letter offered detailed explanations of why the builders believed the law was unneeded.

Mr. Clark said any research beyond professional surveys done before property is developed should be left to the buyer. "It's a question of personal responsibility," he said. "There are plenty of protections out there already."

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