After millions spent on improvements to highway, stream, White Marsh business owners say flooding has worsened

After millions spent on highway, stream, White Marsh business owners say flooding is worse.

Business owners in White Marsh are suing Baltimore County and the state over highway improvements and environmental projects that they say have caused chronic flooding on their properties.

The Maryland Transportation Authority spent $1.08 billion widening Interstate 95, adding express toll lanes and reconfiguring exit ramps between Interstate 895 and White Marsh Boulevard. Baltimore County has spent $15.5 million on White Marsh Run over the past two years.

The work was intended to improve the flow of highway traffic through the area and reduce runoff into local waterways. County officials say the stream restoration was designed so that it could not increase the flooding downstream. But property owners say flooding has worsened.

"It is really a safety hazard," said Joyce Ciampaglio, whose company owns a building next to White Marsh Run. "It really gets scary."

Workers have repeatedly been trapped by floods, Ciampaglio said. One storm pushed water levels over four feet high, sending it through a loading dock and into the building. Ciampaglio's company, Standard Realty, spent thousands repairing the damage and some of the tenant's equipment was also damaged.

Next door, Better Engineering has lost dumpsters that were washed away after heavy rainfall. The owners have built a wall around an electrical transformer to keep floodwaters away, and are paying $20,000 a year for flood insurance — though the site is not officially in a flood plain.

Business owners say the problems began after a series of state and local construction projects. They are suing to try to force a fix and to recover damages for lost property value.

Baltimore County re-engineered a 1.5-mile stretch of the stream and created new wetlands to reduce sediment and nutrient pollution that flows from the stream into the Bird River.

The county also replaced an 800-foot-long sewer pipe that had become exposed through years of erosion and routinely spilled sewage into the stream.

As flooding worsened, property owners in the area banded together and approached county and state officials. Starting in 2012, there were regular meetings of a group dubbed "the consortium."

"We were like: 'Yes, we're going to get something done here,'" said Keith Hiss, president and general manager of Better Engineering. "And then nothing happens."

The property owners hired an engineer to draw up solutions to present to the county and state. The engineer's report, issued last August, offers a range of fixes. Some are simple, such as installing grate-like "trash racks" over culvert openings to keep trash and debris from getting stuck.

But those ideas have gone nowhere, said attorney Matthew G. Hjortsberg, who represents Standard Realty and Better Engineering. Neither the county nor the state has agreed to make any fixes, he said.

"Each one is pointing to the other," he said.

The property owners filed their lawsuits this month in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

Officials with Baltimore County's government declined to comment on the pending litigation.

John C. Sales, a spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, which oversees that stretch of Interstate 95, declined to discuss the details of the lawsuit.

"All construction activities related to White Marsh Run were conducted in accordance with all established laws and with an appropriate standard of care, including all necessary approvals from the Maryland Department of the Environment," he said in a statement.

A spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The county and state have not yet been required to file a response in court.

Hjortsberg said Standard Realty and Better Engineering want officials "to come to the table to resolve the problem."

The property owners say being located in what's now effectively a flood plain has cost them about half of their property value. Any thought of expanding their buildings has to be set aside because they can't build in an area that floods. And the repeated flooding would make it difficult to sell.

"We want Baltimore County to get us back to where we've been, which is not in a flood plain," Hiss said. "And they can do that by fixing the problem."

Interstate 95 runs alongside Better Engineering's property. White Marsh Run flows under the highway in a series of culverts that Better Engineering officials say are too small and clogged with sediment to accommodate the stream during heavy rainstorms.

The culverts fill with water, Hiss said, creating a choke point in a swollen stream. The stream backs up and floods Better Engineering and Standard Realty.

During one flood, Better Engineering employees photographed a dumpster that was carried off in the stream and smashed into the side of Interstate 95, above the culverts.

"Every time there's a flood, our dumpsters get carried away," Hiss said.

Standard Realty and Better Engineering say the flooding began in about 2010 and worsened in 2013, when they said there were three major floods.

Since then, they've suffered severe flooding about once per year, most recently on Feb. 24, when 2.61 inches of rain fell in Baltimore.

Hiss has taken to sending employees home during storms. He's concerned their cars will get trapped when White Marsh Run overruns its banks and floods the parking lot to the street.

"Town Center Court gets flooded, the exit gets flooded, we get trapped," he said. "It's a safety issue."

Most days, White Marsh Run is a calm stream, meandering from Parkville and through White Marsh and eventually spilling into the Bird River. But Hiss and Ciampaglio have seen its destructive side.

"It's hard to imagine a little stream that's not that wide can cause that," Ciampaglio said.

pwood@baltsun.com

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