What Caused Sinkholes on W. Second Ave. Property?

By on May 11, 2018

Amy and David Gerhart’s family settled in for lunch at home after catching a morning movie with their three young children on March 17, a very unlucky St. Patrick’s Day at 530 W. Second Ave. in Lititz.

After lunch, the children, who went to play in the basement, found water on the floor.

“I first thought, ‘oh that happens sometimes,’” David said reacting to his daughter’s discovery of the water in the playroom. “But then I found water was pouring in and covered the floor.”

The water was the result of a water main break in the street, which preceded the creation of large sinkholes on his lawn, sidewalk, and driveway, he said. Six inches of water ended up on his basement floor that followed the channel created from a recently replaced sewer line to the home.

The borough on March 29 filled sinkholes on the Gerhart’s property with “flowable fill” to stop the expansion of the sinkholes and the underground activity.

“Water blew out the grout that we had replaced and it kind of just poured in,” David Gerhart said.

That was the third in a series of sinkholes and water line breaks since January 2016–and the second since the Gerharts purchased the property less than six months earlier.

“Clearly there was something catastrophic going on (underground),” Gerhart said.

The previous sinkholes occurred Nov. 29, only two months after the couple purchased the home. The borough, which acknowledged responsibility for that water main break in the street, immediately closed the 500 block of West Second Avenue, shut off water to homes in the area, set up a traffic detour, then dug up the street, and repaired the break in the street.

A borough dump truck, loaded with debris from the repair, collapsed into a sinkhole that suddenly opened in the street. Lititz Police said the incident in November caused no injuries. Gerhart said photos taken that day show the beginnings of sinkholes on his property, marked off by traffic cones. He said the damaged earth caused him to replace his sewer line. While those sinkholes presented a close call, it wasn’t the first one on the 500 block of West Second Avenue.

On Jan. 26 2016, the borough repaired a sinkhole in the street after a 19-year-old fell through snow inside a hole while taking trash to the curb, according to a story in LNP. The 19-year-old, who is the son of the previous homeowner of the 530 W. Second Ave. property, did not sustain any injuries after falling onto the sinkhole, according to borough police.

LancasterOnline.com reported that he fell straight down into the sinkhole, which was about 15 feet deep. The teen yelled for his mother, who helped pull him out of the hole, police said.

LNP’s story noted that police said the sinkhole was likely caused by a water main break and there are no concerns for the stability of nearby structures. The problem for the Gerharts multiplied when sinkholes appeared on their property following the March 17 water main break. The borough, which has refused to discuss the issue since receiving correspondence this month from an attorney representing the family, has determined the property owner is responsible for the sinkholes on non-public property.

“That was the ‘mothership’ of water main breaks and sinkholes,” he said. “The water main broke in two places. Literally, in one hour, that driveway was gone and there was moving, swirling water in the front yard.”

Gerhart credited Lititz Borough for stepping up and calling an emergency meeting of 15 people, including officials from Warwick Township, engineers, and geotechs. The geologist Gerhart hired agreed with the borough’s assessment that there was immediate danger, he said. The borough on March 29 filled existing sinkholes on Gerhart’s property with “flowable fill” to stop the expansion of the sinkholes and the underground activity.

“I give them credit, they provided this flowable fill, they paid for,” he said.

On the table though was the possibility that work done on his property could cause the road to collapse, and “concern of condemning the house,” he said. “Frankly I think that’s still on the table, but our structural engineer said it’s safe,” he said. “But all of that was discussed at the emergency meeting. They said we have to stop the expansion of the underground activity so we’re going to go ahead and pay for that because that has to happen immediately.” Still, the borough will not go beyond the temporary fix, he said. A permanent repair would be to pump compressed grout into the soil to permanently fill all of the voids, he said. 

According to documents provided by Gerhart, Lititz Borough asked Mark Harman of ARRO Consulting to conduct an analysis of the subsurface activity.

During this two-day process, there were 33 borings into the street in three rows of 11. The results indicated that there was “severely unstable conditions” 48 feet below the street.
Additional assistance was added by Earth Engineering Inc. The company advised pumping pressure grouting into the ground every five feet to fill the voids.

In the meantime Gerhart had to remove a 60-foot maple tree from his front lawn for fear it would fall on the street or his home.
The borough refused &tstr; for liability reasons &tstr; to cut the tree and, as of Tuesday, both the borough and its insurance carrier, Selective Insurance, strongly deny any liability in the matter, he said.

The Gerharts’ insurance carrier denied the claim because their homeowner’s policy doesn’t cover the water damage in the basement because “we don’t have a ‘flood policy/ground water penetration’ rider on our policy,” he said. Still, Gerhart claims his photographs prove that the sinkholes appeared the day of the water main break in November 2017.
On March 29, Gerhart’s hired consultant used ground penetrating radar testing to determine the size and the scope of the voids under those holes.

“This has forced us to shell out over $27,000 to date in emergency repairs, geologic testing and legal representation,” Gerhart said. “We’re praying that they do the right thing and accept responsibility for this mess and make the necessary repairs soon.”

Gerhart said he’d prefer not to file a suit against the borough but believes he has a strong case if it comes to that. He said the borough is claiming “sovereign immunity” which protects it from liability.

However, Gerhart said his attorney Melvin Hess, a partner at GKH Law firm in Lititz, noted that “case law pokes holes, big holes” in that claim of immunity.

“The problem that we are experiencing with the borough is that they are arguing that we can’t definitively know if the source of the sinkholes is on our property or is out on the road &tstr; arguing a sort of a chicken-and-the-egg scenario,” he said. “Were the sink holes here on the property causing the water main break or did the water main break cause the subsidence on our property?”
Gerhart said it doesn’t really make any sense for something in his property to somehow break a huge six-inch water main out on the street. 

“It makes much more sense to me and frankly our testing proves that the water main break out on the street with the hydrostatic pressure of the water, just blasted a channel of high pressure water underneath the ground.” He noted the directionality of the damaged yard across his property that leads straight to the latest sinkhole that exposed the basement wall. That wall has a crack on the inside of the home from floor to ceiling.

Gerhart noted the safety of the neighborhood could be at risk as the case is drawn out. A UGI gas line runs underneath the sidewalk on the 500 block of West Second Avenue and the planned Tree House playground, featuring double ziplines, is scheduled to be built directly across from the sinkholes at Lititz Church of the Brethren. Some residents have complained the two-month closure of 500 block of West Second Avenue has at times significantly impacted traffic in the area of Warwick High School and Middle School at dismissal time.

“I fully understand that they’re concerned about liability and that they do not believe they have any financial responsibility for the situation,” he said. “We just see it differently.”

Lititz Police Chief Kerry Nye said he has no timetable as to when the detour will be removed around the 500 block of West Second Avenue between West Lemon and West Orange streets.

Patrick Burns is news editor and social media editor for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at pburns.eph@lnpnews.com or at 717-721-4455. 

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