An advocate for two homeowners whose East Baltimore homes were demolished last summer because of a sinkhole called on the city to compensate them for the damage Wednesday morning.
The call comes after a FOX 45 investigation this month indicated that the city had not inspected a 115-year-old stormwater tunnel underneath North Avenue since 2000. The storm drain’s collapse caused the sinkhole last July.
“This was an act of negligence, this was an act of an abdication and dereliction of duty,” said attorney Thiru Vignarajah, standing at the intersection of Homewood and North avenues in front of two plots of land where homes once stood. “If you don’t inspect the storm drain, you won’t see what fault lines might be forming. If you don’t conduct the inspection, you won’t be able to see the repairs that are necessary to avert disaster.”
Vignarajah spoke on behalf of homeowners Quentin Bell and Monique Bess, who stood behind him.
Initially, the Department of Public Works said in a statement to FOX 45 that a review of the drain last year “did not indicate items of concern.”
But later, in a February statement to the news outlet, the city indicated it last conducted a “complete internal inspection of all storm drains 36′ and larger” in 2000. “So that would be the most recent inspection report that we have on record,” the statement said.
Given what he called the city’s “incompetence and a dereliction of duty,” Vignarajah called on the city to compensate the owners for the homes they lost — not because they were demolished, he said, but because the city did not do its duty to prevent that from happening.
He questioned whether the city would respond differently if this had happened in a different neighborhood, like Federal Hill.
“If this ends up in a court of law, they’re going to lose,” Vignarajah added. “And there’s no need for them to endure further embarrassment or drag these families through the costs and expense and delay of litigation. They want an answer now.”
In December, three Baltimore homeowners, including Bell, sued the city, alleging that the demolition of their homes was in part caused by its negligence.
They also alleged that their claim for damages was denied by the City. The Baltimore Sun reported that Patrick Hancock, chief of the Baltimore law department’s Central Bureau of Investigation, said in a letter that the law indicates “the claimant must first show that the City had notice of the defect which caused the loss and a reasonable opportunity to correct the defect” before they are required to provide compensation. Hancock indicated in the letter that the city had no prior warning “about problems with the pipes below North Avenue.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Public Works said “this matter is now the subject of litigation, and the City will reserve its comments for the appropriate judicial reform.”
The mayor’s office also did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
“I am calling on their behalf for the city to reconsider their position,” Vignarajah said.