Seven years ago, James M. Schneider was told by Baltimore County public works officials that a large sewer pipe would have to be laid through his 1.4-acre property at the edge of the Back River. Once the job was completed, he was told, the land would be returned to its former condition.
However, damage to the Essex property - and especially to its septic system - was such that the county ultimately condemned and bought the land, its seven-bedroom house and a smaller adjoining residence from the Schneiders and agreed in writing to help relocate the nine-member family to a comparable property. In a settlement agreement, the county said the Schneiders could remain at their Oriole Avenue address, at the county's expense, until the relocation was complete.
Although the family has not found a new home, the county now wants them off the land. It went to court last month in an unsuccessful bid to void the settlement agreement and then threatened to evict them a week before Christmas. After calls from The Baltimore Sun, the county backed off but said it will begin charging the Schneiders a monthly rent of $3,000 if they are not gone by Feb. 1.
Schneider's reaction to the rent proposal was incredulous. "How is a house like that worth $3,000 a month?" he asked, referring to his two-story residence, which is modest, sparsely decorated and mildly ramshackle. Schneider, 39, whose take-home pay as a warehouse manager is about $2,400 a month when he pulls overtime, said he could not begin to afford such a rent.
Schneider and his wife, Debbie, say the turmoil over the property has been difficult for the children - James Jr., 18; Lisa, 16; Andrew, 15;, Brandon, 9; and Matthew, 6. (The family has legal custody of two other girls, Jordan, 10, and Autumn, 7, who are sisters. Schneider's stepdaughter, Angela, 26, lives elsewhere but retains a bedroom at the Essex house.)
"This is where we've spent our childhood," said Jordan, who likes to play soccer and dreams of being a singer like Carrie Underwood. She began staying indoors after the family's yard, filled with construction equipment for almost three years, became too dangerous. "It's kind of sad," she said.
After receiving a call from The Sun and consulting officials, Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for the county government, said the eviction notice had been "sent inadvertently." Evicting the Schneiders was "not the county's position," Kobler said, although she could not explain how the letter had come to be signed by Delores Ruhl, a supervisor in the county's Bureau of Land Acquisition, and sent by certified mail to both Schneider and his attorney.
"I think they're back-trailing now, to be honest," Schneider said. "How can you type up a letter telling a family to get out of their house and then say it was written by mistake?"
Jack R. Sturgill Jr., his lawyer, had an answer. "It's because you're writing a story about it," he told The Sun.
The letter was not the county's first attempt to move the family. According to court transcripts and a lawyer for the family, the county asked a judge to void the relocation agreement and order Schneider and his family off the property near the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant by Dec. 9.
"We don't want to now give him any more money, and we want him out of the property," Assistant County Attorney Jeffrey G. Cook said at the Nov. 12 hearing. Cook described the matter as "a colossal waste of time."
Circuit Judge H. Patrick Stringer denied Cook's request and ordered the county to abide by the terms of the settlement, including relocation. "The county should comply," he said.
Despite the judge's order, the eviction letter went out that same day. Neither Ruhl nor Cook responded to a request for comment.
In an e-mail message, Kobler wrote that county officials have allowed the family "to live on the property for six months rent-free" and that they intend to seek court approval to begin charging the Schneiders "market-rate rent" of $3,000 a month starting Feb. 1.
"Given the current real estate inventory and favorable mortgage rates, we anticipate that the Schneider family will have found a new home before any rent charges would be incurred," Kobler wrote. She said it was possible that family members could be evicted if they remain in the house and have not paid rent.
During the construction project - which involved traversing the Schneiders' property with an underground pipe 5 feet in diameter - workers also dropped a heavy steel plate from a crane onto the family's gazebo, smashing it, and wrecked a brick grill, Schneider said. They created a 20-foot mound of malodorous sludge. Worse, he said, the workers damaged the property's septic tank, rendering it useless.
The county settled with the Schneiders in June, agreeing to pay $356,500 - "a most generous offer for that property," as Kobler described it. The sum covered both houses as well as $31,500 in personal property damage and $5,000 in loss of rental income for the second house. Most of the settlement money went to pay off the Schneiders' mortgage so the county could have clear title.
Schneider said he has about $80,000 left, which he intends to use as a down payment on a new house as soon as he can find one that's big enough and that he can afford. So far, despite the apparent abundance of housing stock, he has not, and he said the county has not been of much help.
John Olszewski Sr., who represents Essex and Dundalk on the Baltimore County Council, said the week before Christmas that he had spoken about the family with County Attorney John E. Beverungen and was told that county officials would, after all, help the family relocate.
"The county should live up to its agreement," Olszewski said, "and I'm very happy to hear from the county attorney that they plan to do that."