Piscataway Hills: The Prince George’s neighborhood that could be no more

After a May landslide, residents of a tight-knit community could lose their homes for good.


Jonathan Heyman and Elysse Kremens, who are engaged to be married, sit on the front steps of their Piscataway Hills home in Fort Washington, Md. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

In the Prince George’s County community of Piscataway Hills, being neighborly means hanging a flag outside to let others know cold drinks are available on a warm summer evening. It means organizing a springtime trip to see the cherry blossoms and working together in winter to chop a fallen tree in the snow.

But teamwork alone cannot save this picturesque Fort Washington neighborhood. Its existence was jeopardized by a May landslide that ruptured the road and utility lines and forced residents to evacuate. Officials reluctantly allowed most of them to return after three weeks, but they are reliant on an aboveground network of water and sewer pipes that will not withstand freezing temperatures in winter.

County officials say it will cost at least $22 million to stabilize the slope and the waterfront neighborhood. They will tell residents at a community meeting Wednesday night whether the county has been able to cobble together the funds. If not — or if government leaders decide it is not a good investment to spend that money fixing a hillside that could collapse in the future — the county could elect to pay 28 homeowners the assessed value of their homes, then condemn and dismantle them. Their section of this Maryland neighborhood, where many built their dream homes, would cease to exist.

A former Army medic would have to give up the sanctuary she worked all her life to find.

Two middle-aged housemates would have to desert the house they built 25 years ago.

A young father would have to abandon the playground he was creating, along with hopes that his future grandchildren eventually would play there.

“You break apart a neighborhood,” said Jonathan Heyman, who bought his Piscataway Hills home with his fiancee in 2012, “and you break apart a community.”

Expensive rupture

Intense rains in late April and early May saturated a thick layer of clay inside the ridge that overlooks that portion of Piscataway Drive, according to an engineering report commissioned by the county, triggering a landslide that sent trees buckling. The main road cracked open. Water and sewer lines burst.


Map of the evacuated neighborhood along Piscataway Drive, in Prince George's County, Maryland.

Six homes were declared uninhabitable because the land beneath them was so unstable. Twenty-two other homes were evacuated as a precaution because there was no water or sewer service and no way for emergency vehicles to access them. The county eventually patched the road and authorized the temporary, aboveground pipes so those 22 families could return.

Engineers say they could stabilize the hillside by reinforcing the land with steel and concrete, building a retaining wall and drilling micropiles — steel casings filled with cement — into the slope.

But the hillside is private, so the government is not obligated to repair it. And the 30-foot-thick layer of Marlboro clay sandwiched between two other soil layers in the sloping hillside means the land could become dangerously waterlogged again.

Prince George’s officials say they have already spent $874,000 on temporary repairs, assistance and the engineering study, and have found $11 million more they can use to address the situation — precisely the amount, suspicious residents note, of the assessed value of the 28 homes. The county has asked the state of Maryland for another $11 million, so far to no avail.

“Governor [Martin] O’Malley is very concerned about the Piscataway community and understands that there is nothing more important to residents than saving their homes,” said Nina Smith, a spokeswoman for the governor. But the catastrophe is too small and affects too few people to merit a disaster declaration that would release state and federal money.

County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) says he wants to keep residents in their homes if he can, even as his aides cautioned that the cost of fixing the slope — equivalent to building an elementary school — could be prohibitive.

“We are not going to stop until we come up with a feasible option that makes [residents] happy and safe and keeps them in their homes” if possible, said Nicholas A. Majett, the county’s chief administrative officer. Baker, he said, has “charged his executive staff to keep all those families in their properties to the extent that we could.”

Some homeowners say they will fight any decision that forces them to leave. They have hosted a yard sale to collect money for attorneys to make sure that their rights are protected. They started an online petition and a crowdfunding Web site seeking donations. An army of volunteers is contacting lawyers and reporters, taking notes during meetings and searching county records.


Kevin Simpson stands in front of his Piscataway Hills home. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

“Someone from the outside wouldn’t understand how difficult it would be to replace what we have here,” said Army Staff Sgt. Kevin Simpson, 30, who moved to the neighborhood eight months ago with his wife, Aubrey LaFosse. If they are forced to leave, Simpson said laughingly, they will have to find a place where all of the neighbors can all move together.

“This is a special place,” he said.

A ‘forever home’

It was the fall of 2005 when Tracy Rookard first fell in love with the house at 13717 Piscataway Dr. Like other neighborhood residents, she said buying her house was the culmination of years of hopes and hard work.

Peace, privacy, quiet: The house had everything the former Army medic dreamed of after leaving the military and working at a gas station to help pay tuition while she earned two degrees in information technology and rose through the ranks at a tech company.

“Who wouldn’t want to come home to this?” Rookard, 49, said one recent day, standing on the buffalo-skin rug of her now-abandoned living room, looking out at a canopy of trees. “This is what you work hard to have.”

The house, which sits on pylons atop the sliding hill, is one of the six that has been declared uninhabitable. Rookard has lived elsewhere since May, first at a hotel, then in a rental home near Piscataway Drive.


Tracy Rookard walks out the door of her home, which was declared uninhabitable by the county after the landslide. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

“No one wants to walk away from their home,” Rookard said. “To be told that you have to move is bad enough, and being told you might never be able to come back is worse. Wondering whether I’ll get paid for it is the worst of the worst.”

Before the landslide, Rookard, like many of her neighbors, had been excited about plans for home improvements — and the opportunity to accumulate lots of memories. When the Cullens, four houses down, had children, she started looking forward to the day when they would come trick-or-treating on Halloween.

Kian Cullen is 5 now, and his sister, Kayla, is 2. They lay on their stomachs on a bungee-cord swing one afternoon last week, pretending they were flying.

The swing hangs from a wooden beam bolted to a tree. It was the first element installed by their father as part of a treehouse playground in the woods. Myles Cullen had big plans for the play area — not only for his son and daughter, but also for the grandchildren he hoped he would have one day.


Cherie Cullen and her children, Kayla, 2, and Kian, 5, in the living room of their condemned home in Fort Washington. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

As a child, Cullen moved frequently with his military family. He did not want that for his kids. So before Kian was born, he and his wife, who were both photographers in the Air Force, found their “forever home” nestled in the Fort Washington woods.

They returned to the neighborhood on the Fourth of July for the first time in weeks, fishing on the creek and barbecuing on their spacious deck. They used the same old canoe Cullen once fished in with his father. He and his wife bought Kayla a pink tackle box.

“I started to love it again,” Cherie Cullen said. But she forced herself to focus on things she does not like about the house. “I can’t let myself make long-term dreams. I stop myself before having thoughts of the future, because I just can’t think about it.”

Sweat equity

Abandoning the neighborhood is inconceivable for retired teacher Daisy McClelland. She and her housemate, Terri St. Clair, built their home with their own hands 25 years ago: drywall, slate flooring, intricate woodwork.

“Our sweat is in these walls,” said McClelland, 67. “I’m not going anywhere.”


Daisy McClelland stands in the front yard of the Piscataway Hills home she built in 1988 with help from her friends. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

The house is a cross between a chalet and American Craftsman style. The dining room is elongated to fit the old worktable that once belonged to McClelland’s grandfather. The kitchen is decorated with antique tools from St. Clair’s family home in Massachusetts.

During the evacuation, they used rope to mark out a path through the woods to an intact part of Piscataway Drive. And they erected a zip line to send grocery bags down. St. Clair was the first to lift her house keys in the air in triumph when most neighbors returned to their homes at the end of May.

“It’s stressful not knowing what’s going to happen,” McClelland said. “We love our neighborhood, and we want to stay.”

Simpson and his wife, LaFosse, also an Army staff sergeant, say they are perhaps the least attached to their property, having moved in only eight months ago. But they were surprised at how quickly it felt like home.

The house is secluded in the woods and spacious enough for LaFosse’s art studio and a mini dojo where Simpson can practice martial arts.

Together, they have helped renovate a neighbor’s kitchen and enjoyed backyard barbecues with other residents. Before the landslide, they had plans to go sailing on a neighbor’s boat. They learned about Lot 39 — an empty clearing on the waterfront that has never been built on and has become a de facto gathering place for picnics and canoeing.

Heyman and his fiancee, Elysse Kremens, bought a fixer-upper on Piscataway Drive in 2012. They planned to start a family there.


Elysse Kremens and Jonathan Heyman, who are engaged, on the deck of their Piscataway Hills home. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

When a massive tree in their front yard looked ready to collapse earlier this summer, the couple had the top cut off. But they did not know what to do with the huge, heavy logs left behind.

Then McClelland and St. Clair showed up with a wood splitter, and everyone else brought axes for a chopping party. The woodpile still sits on the lawn, five rows deep.

Heyman and Kremens looked at it the other day and smiled.

“It doesn’t make sense to condemn an entire neighborhood,” Kremens said.

Arelis Hernández covers Prince George’s County as part of The Washington Post's local staff.
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