Sinkhole opens up battle over your property rights and tax dollars

Jack Wolfe didn’t think anything of it when he called Lower Allen Township in June to fix the sinkhole that had opened up in his yard.

It was, after all, the third time he’d made that call in the 48 years he’s owned his home on Rockaway Drive.

“We had a problem, shortly after we moved, with a sinkhole,” Wolfe said. “The township took care of it because of the stormwater line running through the yard.”

Wolfe says some of the township commissioners came out to his house, looked at the sinkhole, and told him they’d take care of it.

That didn’t happen.

“I got a letter from the township manager stating it’s my problem, they’re not gonna do nothing,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe went back and forth with the township for months. He offered to fill the sinkhole with concrete; township leaders said he wasn’t allowed because of the damage it could do to the township’s stormwater system.

Properly filling a sinkhole can cost thousands of dollars.

To Wolfe, it wasn’t just a sinkhole. It was damage to the property he and his recently-deceased wife had built their life upon.

“There are no words,” Wolfe said. “It’s frustrating, aggravating.”

As the sinkhole grew, so did Wolfe’s concerns.

“You know, this is a crock,” Wolfe said. “But since I’m not getting anywhere, I figured, ‘I’m going to call the news and maybe they can help men.'”

The investigation

Documents from Right to Know Requests and public records about Wolfe’s property show his development was built in the 1950s. Letters from that time show the private developer, not the township, installed the stormwater lines.

However, the township’s stormwater system did end up moving through those pipes, including the one in Wolfe’s yard.

There’s a 1962 letter about Wolfe’s property from the Federal Housing Administration regarding a sinkhole caused by a damaged pipe. The letter points to the “local authorities” as the party responsible for repairs.

Lower Allen Township was also in possession of a letter from Wolfe’s neighbors, saying the township has always made repairs and filled sinkholes after their stormwater line issues.

The township’s perspective

“I’ve been a commissioner for 16 years,” Lower Allen Board of Commissioners H. Edward Black said. “We have never fixed a sinkhole on private property.”

Black says he can’t speak to any actions his predecessors may have taken. However, he does believe the current policy protects your tax dollars.

“We’re trying to keep taxes as low as we can to get the job done,” Black said. “If we start taking care of sinkholes on private property, which is where we should not be, then we’re setting a precedent for everyone to ask us to fix their sinkholes.”

ABC27 asked Black about Wolfe’s specific situation.

“The pipe that you asked about is a private pipe,” Black said. “It’s not a township pipe.”

But attorneys say it’s not necessarily that simple.

The gray area

“Unfortunately, years ago the townships weren’t on top of this,” Martson Law land use attorney and shareholder Hubert Gilroy said. “Some developers weren’t being supervised. Stormwater or other utilities were being put in without appropriate inspections. And then once they malfunction, that’s when the issue arises.”

Gilroy says it’s not uncommon for older homes to be missing documentation showing crucial information about where utilities are and who has rights to access them.

“Townships recently have started to adopt ordinances saying that the stormwater facilities are the landowner’s responsibility,” Gilroy said. ” The question is, ‘What’s a court going to say?””

Some judges have ruled that, in certain cases, tax dollars should pay for the upkeep of a system that runs through private property, but benefits the overall community.

“There’s certainly a disagreement about what should happen,” Gilroy said.

Back to Jack

Jack Wolfe’s neighbors say they don’t understand how the township would expect them to maintain underground utilities that require technical expertise to fix.

“Well of course it’s on private property,” Wolfe’s neighbor Al Fergison said. “But it’s certainly nothing that I put in, and I’m pretty sure Jack didn’t sneak in here 30 years ago and attach a big pipe to their storm drain out there. So who else does it belong to?”

“When [the township] takes over a residential development, and they take over the stormwater management system, that’s their system,” Fergison added.

As ABC27 made calls and found more documents, word spread about Wolfe’s sinkhole. On a Saturday morning, nearly one year after it first opened, friends, neighbors, and community leaders gathered to fix the problem.

“He’s been a crossing guard for years watching my kids go back and forth to school,” Lower Allen Commissioner Jack Simpson said. But on that Saturday, Simpson was not acting as a commissioner.

“When I heard about it, wanted to see if we can do something about it to help out a neighbor,” Simpson said. “The Amish do a barn raising if something happens. I figured we could have an old-fashioned hole filling.”

Local businesses donated their extra materials, and Cedar Cliff’s JROTC program donated their time and labor.

“When someone’s in a jam and we can give a little help, then we’re gonna show up,” Col. Frank Hancock, Cedar Cliff’s Senior Army Instructor, said.

With a big smile, Wolfe had a big ‘thank you’ ready for each person who showed up.

“When they called and said this was going to happen, I was really amazed,” Wolfe said. “For awhile, I wasn’t getting anywhere. With you all investigating and everything else, it was like everything turned around and came out for the best.”

What you need to know

Central Pennsylvania has a lot of limestone, making this area prone to sinkholes.

If you are a homeowner or looking to become one, look up easements associated with your property. Easements are the rights of a third party, like a township or even a neighbor, to access your property.

Easements are often, but not always found on the deed to to your property. A title search will provide more information.

Lower Allen Township commissioners also recommend investing in sinkhole insurance.

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