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Laws loose on disclosure of hazards near houses


When Helen and Robert Burdess bought a four-bedroom house in Edgewood last fall, a painful lesson came with it.

The couple learned last month that their new, $147,000 house, with its garage, family room and wooded lot, is a quarter-mile from one of the most dangerous chemical weapons burial sites in the country, at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The lesson: Buyer beware.

Maryland and its localities have a hodgepodge of laws and policies to encourage builders and real estate agents to disclose important information to prospective homebuyers.

But, as the Burdesses and other families in Edgewood have found, when it comes to disclosure of nearby environmental hazards, the laws are weak, poorly enforced or nonexistent.

"It's too late for us," Mrs. Burdess said. "The county makes more of an issue out of who can have a liquor license near a school," she said, than making sure prospective homeowners are told of nearby environmental hazards.

In general, local governments in Maryland do little to require such disclosure, and builders often fight it. Real estate agents sometimes claim ignorance of nearby environmental hazards, even ones that have been discussed widely at public meetings or in news reports.

State disclosure laws virtually ignore the issue of potential hazards associated with adjacent land, including government-owned sites. Harford's lack of disclosure requirements has caused problems for the Army, which owns the proving ground.

"It's frustrating that so many people are unaware of what's going on here," said Gary Holloway, the Army's spokesman at Aberdeen. The Army is preparing to remove unexploded chemical weapons on a 300-acre former testing and training area known as the Nike site, which could require temporary evacuation of some Edgewood residents.

The lack of disclosure is most prevalent in suburban jurisdictions. It has surfaced time and time again -- around an old Baltimore County dump in Parkton; around a contaminated former Nike missile base in Reisterstown, also in Baltimore County; around a closed Howard County landfill in Woodbine; next to an old Harford rubble landfill in Abingdon.

"There's just a feeling that something more ought to be done" by government, said Steven Hirsch, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official who monitors the proving ground.

Harford County, which has tried to get notices of potential hazards included in sales contracts for new houses, appears to have one of the most aggressive disclosure policies in Maryland. PTC Still, it relies mostly on the good graces of builders and real estate agents.

Other Baltimore-area jurisdictions -- Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties -- require very little disclosure. Mostly, they simply require that prospective buyers be told to consult land-use plans. That can be a time-consuming process that forces a potential house buyer to find the records, search them and possibly write letters requesting more information.

Politicians never have been eager to require disclosure of environmental hazards -- both on properties being sold or on sites near a development.

"It is a tough battle," said Del. A. Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican. He tried to get the General Assembly this year to expand disclosure of environmental hazards associated with sites where houses are to be built. The House approved the measure; a Senate committee killed it.

The new Baltimore County Council is considering repeal of a law similar to the one proposed by Mr. Kach. That 6-month-old law requires sellers of new houses to tell buyers whether hazardous materials exist on the lot. A vote is due tonight.

In the case of the Burdesses and about 40 other families at the Otter Creek Landing development in Edgewood, builder Bob Ward had signed a three-page memorandum recommending that his company provide written information in sales contracts about Aberdeen's chemical weapons research and testing, some of which resulted in the burial of an unknown number of unexploded shells.

But Mr. Ward, a former president of the Harford homebuilders association, did not include the disclosure when he sold the houses. Harford officials said they were unaware that Mr. Ward was not following their agreement. Because the county has no formal disclosure law, it cannot penalize him.

Realtors in Harford said they may be able to help keep what happened to the Burdess family and its neighbors from happening to anyone else.

After the Army notified 20,000 residents living near the proving ground of its intention to remove the unexploded shells at the Nike site and along the base's boundary, the board of directors of the Harford County Association of Realtors sent copies of the Army's letter to every real estate office in the county. It is left to each of the 700 Realtors in Harford to disclose the letter's contents when selling a house near the base, said Marge Eikenberg, association president.

"Any material fact, it should be disclosed," she said. "You can't go wrong if you are upfront."

Some politicians believe that buyers must understand that they have to protect themselves as much as they would expect government or others to protect them.

"We can't go knocking on doors," said Susan B. Heselton, a Harford County Council Republican who represents Edgewood. "The people have to take some responsibility."

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