When Donald and Kathleen Angeletti decided two years ago to buy a new home, the recently built Calvert Ridge subdivision in Elkridge seemed the ideal place.
Situated north of Route 100 between Montgomery Road and Interstate 95, the $250,000 to $300,000 homes were elaborately equipped and had neatly manicured lawns. It was exactly where the couple wanted to raise their three children: Christina, 13, Steven, 12, and James, 10.
"This was going to be our final house, at least until the kids were all grown up," said Donald Angeletti, 41, who, with his wife, Kathy, 39, saved for years to buy their dream home. "The location was perfect, and the house had everything that we wanted."
But a year ago today, dangerous levels of methane gas were detected in three homes in the subdivision and the families were forced to permanently evacuate.
In March, the Angelettis and 16 other families filed a $75 million lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore against Ryan Homes and the developer, Brantly Group, for failing, they say, to disclose at the time of purchase that the subdivision is on a former dumping site.
"We would never have moved here if we knew this," said Kathy Angeletti. "It's really taken a toll on us."
The lawsuit has not gone to trial. Some property owners in Calvert Ridge say they continue to live in fear of what lies underground. The Angelettis want to sell and move, but say no one will buy their home because of the problems.
Ryan, Brantly Group and Howard County officials insist the residents have nothing to fear because potential contaminants have been dug up and methane detectors have been installed in the homes of anyone who wants them. Ryan Homes and other homebuilders have sold 40 to 45 homes in and around Calvert Ridge in the past year, says Ryan spokesman Robert Coursey.
"The developer has removed the organic material which was the major source of the methane gas at Calvert Ridge," Coursey said. "We have met jointly with county officials and community residents to answer questions, [and] we have sealed and vented basement sump [pumps]."
Residents and the attorney representing them in the lawsuit disagree. Sometimesthe gas detectors in their homes go off, they say, indicating methane is present.
"There is sheer terror in my children's faces when the alarms go off," Don Angeletti said. "How do you explain this to your kids? We should not have to live with methane gas detectors in our home -- that was not on the options list when we purchased our home."
Almost all of the 17 homeowners have "For Sale" signs on their front lawns. The Angelettis say they've received a few calls and visits from interested buyers, all of whom flee upon learning about the events in the past year.
"When we tell them the situation, they jump in their cars and they get the hell out of here," Don Angeletti said. "I will not do to another family what was done to us," Kathy Angeletti said. "That's just wrong."
On Sept. 2, 1998, Howard County Fire and Rescue officials ordered three families to evacuate their homes after high levels of methane were detected in their basements near sump pumps. Those families have reached a private settlement with Ryan Homes and relocated.
In an October interview with The Sun, Brantly Group President John Liparini disclosed that his company was aware that the land had once been used as a dumping ground. After digging to ensure that the land could support houses, workers discovered the buried materials, Liparini said.
"We dug about 75 percent of the site," he said. "We didn't touch the other 25 percent."
That angered residents, many of whom say that they were told only that the property was once a farm.
Coursey said last week that the builder "discloses pertinent facts of the home buying process of which we are aware," but he would not answer specific questions on whether Ryan Homes informed its customers about the dump. "We also direct all potential purchasers to research appropriate public sources of information on their own."
In addition to installing gas detectors, the builder and developer hired a contractor to dig behind one of the evacuated families' homes in December to unearth the remaining debris.
Methane gas was also detected last September in the nearby Marshalee Estates subdivision. Residents there have been closely monitoring the situation in Calvert Ridge.
"We're just watching," said Philip Manley, a Marshalee Estates resident. "We are worried from a safety standpoint as well as a property value standpoint." Most of the homes in the subdivision were built by Ryan Homes, and the land was developed by Brantly Group.
Angry Calvert Ridge residents say the county is partly responsible for their problems, faulting officials for issuing permits allowing Ryan to build and for not sharing test results from the site.
County officials have long insisted they do not believe Ryan Homes or the developer violated the law, and say that, based on test results, the community is not unsafe.
"All of the test results that we have, the community has," said David M. Hammerman, director of the Howard County Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits. "The situation there has really settled down."
Pamela Marks, the lawyer representing the 17 Calvert Ridge families in the lawsuit, disagreed.
"The county has its head in the sand," she said. "This problem was not ever properly evaluated. An assessment has not even been done."
"Maybe some day it is fixable, but right now my clients do not want to live there -- they want to move on with their life," Marks said.
The thought of moving has been on the minds of most of these residents. Just when they were beginning to get to know one another, they'll likely be separated. It's hardest for the children.
Patricia and David Eakin's two small sons, Daniel and Nicholas, have been crying over the "For Sale" sign that stands on the front lawn of the home belonging to John and Deborah Batzer and their two sons, Kyle and James. The children are sad, Patricia Eakin said, at the thought that their friends will likely move away.
"It's tough," she said. "We know that we'll have to move too, but we don't talk about it around them."
Difference of opinion
Coursey said "Ryan Homes continues to believe in the community of Calvert Ridge. It's a great place to live. We would be willing to engage in continuing dialogue with our customers, however, it is very difficult to accomplish this under the current litigation."
The Angelettis don't want to talk anymore -- they just want to move.
"We don't want to have anything to do with Ryan Homes," Kathy Angeletti said. "We just don't trust them."