Couple alleges construction causing mold, water damage

Florence couple files injunction against Board of Education

By: Scott Morgan
   FLORENCE — In October 2003, Bart and Jennifer Shrader bought a house on Tall Timber Lane. The house, built 20 years prior, was never known to have had problems with flooding or water damage in its basement, much less mold.
   Seventeen months after the Shraders moved into 46 Tall Timber Lane, in March 2005, the Florence Township Board of Education began construction on a new high school a few hundred yards from the Shraders’ backyard. Part of the construction was a retention basin to collect excess water.
   Those are the facts.
   What will be up to a court to decide is whether that construction — particularly of that retention basin — is responsible for the water damage that has plagued Bart and Jennifer Shrader since June and should, therefore, be halted.
   On Jan. 10, after what he says has been a fruitless battle with local officials to get answers, Mr. Shrader filed an injunction against the Florence Township Board of Education to, according to Haddonfield attorney Tom Booth, "stop the damage from happening. And if that means even that they have to stop construction on the school, so be it."
   The suit alleges that the Board of Education botched the design and construction of the school’s stormwater system, leading to the mold and water damage that has occurred at the Shrader house. As it is an injunction, there is no money being sought presently. Mr. Booth said, however, that he and the Shraders are not ruling out a post-injunction suit that would name "several more entities" and seek financial compensation for physical and emotional damages.
   School district officials said Tuesday that they would not comment on the situation, as it is in litigation.
   The suit draws a straight line between the damages in the Shraders’ basement and the retention basin sitting "within 50 feet of the Shrader property line." Starting three months after the school construction kicked off, the complaint states, water entered the Shraders’ basement, the first floor began to bind and small cracks appeared in the drywall. By the fall, the complaint states, glass surfaces throughout the house began collecting moisture. By October, it states, Mrs. Shrader, who reportedly has asthma, took their two children and moved out of the house, though Mr. Shrader has stayed.
   The township code does not specify how far a detention/retention basin must be from residential property lines and even Mr. Booth said he is uncertain of the proper setback. He added, however, that even if the basin meets all legal distance limits, there are several problems (including silt sediment and improper construction) that are causing the groundwater to build up underground.
   Several decades back, the property that is now Tall Pines and the high school grounds was a farm, served by a now-dormant streambed that Mr. Booth said is "trying to reactivate" itself. Excess surface water, he said, a side effect from the construction of new, impervious surfaces on the school grounds, such as tennis courts and parking lots, is collecting in the basin and around the Shrader property and is overwhelming the ground’s ability to process it naturally. This, Mr. Booth said, is what is causing the Shraders’ sump pump to work continuously and causing the damage to the Shrader house — including a shift in the foundation and larger sinkholes.
   Sinkholes around Tall Pines, including on the Shraders’ property, were a problem before construction of the school began last March. According to Township Council minutes posted online, Mr. Shrader discussed "groundwater issues" with the council in October 2004, five months prior to the groundbreaking.
   On Tuesday, Mr. Shrader explained that the issues he was discussing were sinkholes on his property. Mr. Booth said that the sinkholes present prior to the construction and the damages in the Shrader house now are "two separate issues." He added, however, that, if anything, the construction has dramatically aggravated the conditions that cause ground to shift and/or develop sinkholes.
   "What’s going on now is not related to the prior issue of the sinkholes," he said.
   What is going on now, according to Mr. Booth, is that the Shrader house is falling apart. Mr. Booth said the foundation seems to have shifted and that this shift in the foundation slab is potentially the cause of a problem the Shraders are having with outgoing water. The flow of wastewater leaving the house, he said, is being impeded, though Mr. Booth said there is no problem with inflow, nor with the quality of drinking water.
   Mr. Booth’s assessment of the conditions: "The house is probably almost uninhabitable at this point."
   As evidence of the problems mentioned, the suit cites a pair of outside actions. First, a citation issued in July by the Burlington County Soil Conservation District against the Board of Education for "various deficiencies" with the detention/retention basin, among other things.
   Second, the suit includes a report issued Oct. 13 by Cherry Hill-based engineer Horace Albert Reeves Jr., hired by Mr. Shrader, which opines, "within a reasonable degree of engineering certainty that the design of the storm-water management system failed to take into account the proximity of residential properties to the north, the Shrader property being one of these."
   The Reeves report continues, "The design and/or construction of the (detention/retention) basin is also improper in that it failed to account for an excessive amount of water that flooded … designated wetlands downstream."
   To date, no other property owners in the 46-home Tall Pines development have filed litigation regarding the school construction project. However, such facts hardly matter to the Shraders and Mr. Booth, who claim that "a tremendous amount of stress … emotionally and financially" has eroded the Shraders’ family life.
   Mr. Shrader said Monday that his wife is temporarily out of work, on medical leave due to stress.
   The case will be heard in state Superior Court in Mount Holly, though no dates have yet been set.