IN EARLY MAY, after heavy rains, a slope collapsed on the banks of the Potomac River in Fort Washington, about five miles south of the Beltway in Prince George’s County. The collapse buckled a public road serving a wooded suburban neighborhood called Piscataway, left six homes atop the slope uninhabitable and isolated another 22 at the bottom. Prince George’s officials are now grappling with the results — a moral, legal, budgetary and political dilemma for County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D).
Ordinarily, it would be up to the county to fix the road, which is public property. But in this case, the road can’t be fixed without shoring up the slope, which is the homeowners’ private property.
In fact, county officials maintain (based on a consultant’s study) that it was the slope’s collapse that caused the road to buckle; in theory, the county could sue the homeowners for the price of fixing the whole mess.
That’s not going to happen. For one thing, Mr. Baker doesn’t want to look like an ogre. For another, reinforcing the slope and rebuilding the road could cost well over $20 million, a large sum to save a community of 28 homes.
Insurers will not cover costs incurred due to an “act of God.” The question is whether the county can step in with some financial help for the homeowners. Given the county’s tight budget, a $20 million repair job is probably out of the question. So officials are examining cheaper options; none is likely to be popular.
One possibility is for the county, using its power of eminent domain, to condemn and purchase the property, at some or all of its pre-collapse market value. The advantage is that the Piscataway residents could use the money to buy homes elsewhere. The disadvantage is the price would still be steep — upward of $10 million — and some or many of the homeowners would likely be furious at being forced to leave homes that are (in the case of the 22 at the slope’s bottom) undamaged.
Undamaged, yes; fit for habitation, no. With the road closed, the homes at the bottom are inaccessible to police, fire and ambulance service. To access their homes, residents now walk hundreds of yards down a pathway. Water and sewer pipes sundered by the slope’s collapse have been replaced with temporary above-ground lines that will freeze in the winter. Meanwhile, the slope continues to shift.
Understandably, the homeowners are distraught; many are afraid they will lose everything. They are blameless, and so is the county. (Although the county would not approve construction on similar clayey soil today, its perils were not understood in the 1970s, when many of the Piscataway homes were built.)
The county’s challenge is to find a solution that provides some relief to the homeowners while protecting the county from a financial hit that could establish a risky precedent. In the absence of federal funds (which some residents are seeking), that will be a tall order. Mr. Baker will need to weigh compassion against prudent financial management.