Residents discuss sinking feeling with council

By on December 7, 2016

“We still do not know what caused this (sinkhole) and we may never fully know what caused this.”

~ Ephrata Borough Manager Robert Thompson

Workers on Nov. 16 continue to fill a sinkhole which collapsed the intersection of Park Avenue and Pine Street on the morning of Nov. 8. (photo by Patrick Burns)

Workers on Nov. 16 continue to fill a sinkhole which collapsed the intersection of Park Avenue and Pine Street on the morning of Nov. 8. (photo by Patrick Burns)

Several residents still displaced by a giant sinkhole on Nov. 8 aired their grievances at Monday’s Ephrata Borough Council meeting.

Eileen Bunting, a resident of an apartment at 247 Park Ave., was vacationing with her husband in Florida when she learned of the sinkhole via Lancaster Online.

The couple joined several residents who’ve vowed not to return to live in the apartments located next to the corner of West Pine Street and Park Avenue which collapsed in the sinkhole.

“I saw in the media how the borough was assisting the residents with finding housing,” said Bunting. “Officers Allen, Albaugh and Cook were all very good and Mrs. [Nancy] Harris as well.”

The problem, according to Bunting, is Hauenstein Agency, the rental management firm in charge of the building. Hauenstein, which first told residents they could move back Dec. 1, has informed tenants it could be another month until they’ll return to their homes.

“That’s totally unacceptable and I won’t stand for it,” said Bunting.

Representatives from Hauenstein Agency have refused to comment to the Ephrata Review.

Gehman also called out the borough for not pressing Hauenstein, which disappeared from residents looking for answers during the last month, some tenants said.

“As far as the borough assisting us, they did absolutely nothing,” Eileen Bunting said.

The Buntings, who survive on Social Security alone, arrived back from Florida on Nov. 13 and have been staying at a motel since.

“We are staying at the Red Roof with the money coming out of our pockets,” added Bunting. “This is absolutely not acceptable. I have to point out those people who have treated us well, like the officers and Nancy Harris. But as far as anyone else from the borough, they have done nothing.”

Along with the three officers whom Bunting commended, Nancy Harris works for the borough as code enforcement officer.

Prior to the sinkhole situation, Bunting pointed out that a pipe had burst in their bathroom, causing extensive damage. That burst pipe also caused damage to the apartment on the floor below her unit.

Council president Susan Rowe clarified with Bunting that the issue with the burst water pipe was an issue she would need to take up with the Hauenstein Agency and the property owner. She also clarified that the burst pipe had not contributed to the sinkhole.

“The American Red Cross and Ephrata Area Social Services are the only ones helping us with the situation with the sinkhole,” Bunting added. “Except for the broken water pipe, we should have been back in our apartment on December 1.”

Part of the delay in addressing the broken water pipe within the building was in assuring the building was safe to allow anyone, plumbers included, back into the building to complete the work. Borough Manager Bob Thompson explained that after careful early evaluation of the situation it was determined that it was unsafe and the borough could not allow workers back into the building.

One of Bunting’s neighbor’s, Jack Farnquist, Jr. lives directly beneath her apartment. Farnquist’s apartment has perhaps taken the brunt of the damage caused first by Bunting’s burst water pipes and then far worse, days later when a temporary sewer pipe failed and raw sewage backed up through his kitchen sink and flooded his entire apartment, from the kitchen to the living room and his son’s bedroom.

Farnquist is another of the several tenants who are refusing to ever call the site home, even once given the all clear by borough officials and once remediation efforts by the property owners have been completed. He handed council members a stack of photos which showed that even after extensive work by Ephrata-based Compleat Restorations, there were still remnants of used toilet paper and human feces throughout his apartment. He added that he had several letters including a Catholic priest whom had been to his apartment and could attest to the deplorable conditions and wretched smell.

“It destroyed everything,” said Farnquist. “I’m told my apartment took it the worst. Compleat Restorations is saying it’s ok to move back in with human feces still in my apartment.”

Compleat Restorations was brought in to handle remediation work following the failure of the temporary sewer line.

“I’m never going back to live there because of how bad it is,” said Farnquist. “Who is going to pay for all of this? (The borough) sent the plumber to do a job and it came up through the kitchen sink. Who is paying for all my personal belongings? The borough has not been doing much for me either. They say it’s cleaned up but it’s not cleaned up for me either.”

Rowe questioned Farnquist and the others regarding any renters’ insurance policies each may hold. Farnquist indicated he had renters’ insurance but that his policy would not pay for any of his expenses because it is the borough’s fault. Others indicated that if the disaster were deemed an act of God no benefits would be forthcoming.

But borough officials concede they may never know what caused such a huge sinkhole to open up. The theories are many but even with several engineers and experts having been brought in, no solid final explanations have been made. And, Thompson said the cause may never be known.

Borough solicitor James McManus indicated that the borough would carefully review the situation but that without much more information there was no way he could say who was liable or what insurance company would do what for whom as it relates to the broken temporary sewage line. He said that for now, it would be hard to make a final determination until the borough had enough facts which could be properly investigated.

Rowe assured Farnquist that the borough would look into this concerns and be in touch with all concerned.

“I just want compensated for my belongings,” said Farnquist.

Next to address council was Lori Gehman, a resident at 241 Park Avenue. Gehman claimed to have a “reliable source” that the sinkhole was due to the wrong piping being used by the borough.

“No renters’ insurance will cover anything based on a natural sink hole,” said Gehman. “I cannot tell you my source but it’s very related to the borough. My source said the borough messed up and put in the wrong pipes. I don’t trust that building. Period. It is well known that there is an underground railroad from Church (Avenue) to the monastery, with caverns underneath it all. How can you say it is safe?”

Gehman claimed that currently displaced residents stand to find no relief from their insurance policies because of how the borough is stating the cause of the pothole.

Rowe and Mayor Ralph Mowen challenged Gehman on the fact she would not name her source.

“If you will not tell us the source, then it is irrelevant,” challenged Mowen.

To set the record straight, Thompson said he was unaware of any inappropriate material or repairs applied previously.

“The borough went above and beyond to procure material and repair the site,” explained Thompson. “First and foremost, we wanted to secure and protect the public welfare. We still do not know what caused this and we may never fully know what caused this.”

Thompson reiterated that since the borough had not been able to confirm what had caused it, they could not say it was a natural disaster. However, he did say that several high-level engineers were brought in to make sure the sight was safe and that despite claims by Ms. Gehman, there are no caverns beneath Park Avenue.

Gehman also claimed that her building is beginning to lean to the right when viewed from the back. Thompson disagreed saying that according to all engineering reports the building was safe.

“From the start, we preferred to take a more conservative approach and assuring the public safety, health and well-being,” added Thompson. “We felt it was better to take a little longer and make sure that all was well before we let anyone back in.”

One small piece of relief to be passed by council is that electric bills for customers affected by the sinkhole would be waived for the period while they are displaced.

During the second opportunity for residents to be heard, Bunting again spoke to council, thanking them for that and saying it was most helpful.

If you have any questions or concerns about this story contact Gary Klinger at klingerglobal@gmail.com or Patrick Burns at pburns.eph@lnpnews.com

 

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