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Engineers suspect bedrock has fractured beneath 7 Lancaster houses condemned last month

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Residents vacated last month from seven row houses in the 500 block of North Plum Street won’t be allowed to return for the foreseeable future, if ever, after engineers discovered subsoil problems causing foundations to shift, Lancaster officials said Tuesday.

Engineers hired by the city found what their report calls “geological anomalies” under 527, 529 and 531 N. Plum St., putting them “at risk of further structural damage” unless the underground problem is corrected.

The other four condemned properties — 523, 525, 533 and 535 N. Plum St. — could be safely occupied, but only if tilting and cracked masonry walls are corrected and the owners agree to regular monitoring, which could be costly, the city said.

“If I wanted to move back in, they would charge me a monitoring fee of roughly $500 a week,” homeowner Chanon Brinson, 47, of 523 N. Plum St., said. “That’s ridiculous. My mortgage is only $890” a month.

The unprecedented situation leaves the city with more questions than answers and the property owners uncertain about the future of their investments.

The engineers say a long-standing, naturally occurring bedrock fracture is the most likely reason some basement walls have tilted, basement floors have sunk and roofs have settled unevenly.

“The fracture was most likely present when the houses were built” over 100 years ago, the engineers said in a letter to John Lefever, the city’s chief of building codes.

The letter adds that the property owners “are not at fault” because the geological conditions were “outside of their control.”

The letter avoids the term sinkhole, saying soil borings would be needed to “determine the exact nature of these anomalies.”

Costs mounting

The city’s bill for the tests will exceed $15,000, Jess King, chief of staff for Mayor Danene Sorace, said. King added that the city has no obligation to pay for further testing or correcting the problem because the properties are privately owned.

But the city has asked the engineers to provide an estimate of what soil borings would cost.

About 20 people were displaced Aug. 8 after housing inspectors discovered unsafe structural problems and condemned the properties. Three homes were owner-occupied, and four were rental properties.

“It’s a lot for us to take in,” said David Lewis, a landlord whose tenants at 533 N. Plum St. were displaced. “There’s not much I can do. I guess we’ll be notified to see how far the city is going to pursue this.”

Homeowner’s insurance does not routinely cover damage caused by geological issues. At least one of the property owners purchased extra coverage for sinkhole damage, Barry Handwerger, city solicitor, said, but he doesn't know if the coverage would apply to this situation.

Kicked out

Brison and wife, Shannon, bought their home in 1998 and recently made improvements ahead of putting it on the market.

NPlumCondemn - 080819-2.jpg

Crumbling brick falls from the wall at the side entrance to 529 N. Plum St., one of seven homes condemned in the 500 block of North Plum Street on Aug. 8, 2019.

“Now it’s unsellable,” said Brinson, a printing company worker. He and his wife are staying with a friend and paying about $800 a month.

He said they also continue to pay a mortgage, homeowner’s insurance and property taxes on a home they can’t live in.

“You kick me out of the house, but you have no plan for the people?” Brinson said. “I don’t have first month’s and last month’s rent” for an apartment. “I’m utterly screwed.”

Two households, totaling six people, remain in hotels as they look for apartments. Donations to Community Action Partnership have paid for the lodging, said Kristy Aurand, the nonprofit’s chief development officer.

The Community Action Partnership’s assistance fund also helped three households with such expenses as security deposits and furniture. Two other households are staying with friends.

The residents will be allowed to remove belongings from the condemned houses in the near future, Handwerger said.

Lefever, the building code chief, has met with property owners to explain the engineer’s report. King said city staff will go door to door in the immediate neighborhood to explain the situation.

Ground scans

The houses were built at about the same time on what used to be part of 27-acre McGrann’s racetrack and fairgrounds. They rest on four feet of unknown fill, Handwerger said.

Ground-penetrating scans found two areas with anomalies suggesting weaker soils or voids. One area is under the houses at 525, 527 and 529 N. Plum St.

The other area is in the backyards of those properties and extending into the alley behind the houses. The surface of the rear area shows no evidence of an underground problem. 

North Plum Street map

An aerial photo of the 500 block of North Plum Street contained in an engineer's report. The arrows point to areas of underground anomalies that caused Lancaster City in August 2019 to condemn seven houses for structural issues.

Engineers said the western most anomaly was formed through an underlying bedrock fracture, which allowed soil to migrate, creating an area of weaker soil under the houses and extending to the second area in the backyards.

“The migration of soils is a long-term, slow process” that is the most likely explanation for shifting basement walls and floors, the engineer’s letter says.

The engineers haven’t said how to fix the problem because a definitive cause has not been established, Handwerger said.

“It's unfortunate for these property owners,” Handwerger said. “They didn't do anything wrong. They didn't do anything to cause it, and little did they know when they bought their houses that they were going to have a problem.”