Sunday, October 19, 2003

New homeowners bought lots of trouble

In a lead-tainted Butler County subdivision, shooting-range remnants shattered dreams

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LIBERTY TWP. - Ed and Robin Lumbert scrimped and saved for years to buy their piece of the suburban dream:

A new, four-bedroom house on a quiet cul-de-sac. A lush back yard near green, open parks. A home close to highways, stores and great schools. Plenty of new friends for their three young kids.

Then the dream went bust.

Nearly two years after it held such promise, the Lumberts' house today is one of 41 homes that are part of the biggest residential cleanup of lead contamination in Greater Cincinnati history.

• Lexington Manor qualifies as a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site because people, animals and the environment are being exposed to contaminants, creating an urgent need to clean the subdivision.
• Lead exposure can damage the brain, nervous system, kidneys and other tissues. At high levels, it can be deadly. At chronic lower levels, lead can hurt learning ability and damage short-term memory.
• Children are especially vulnerable. Their bodies absorb lead much more easily and keep it in their systems longer than adults. The concern at Lexington Manor was that children and pets would eat lead-tainted dirt or breathe in lead dust.
The soil in Lexington Manor subdivision has been tested more times than anyone cares to count. Soon, excavating equipment and workers in hazmat-like suits will start digging up people's yards, cleaning up the lead and arsenic left by years of skeet shooting when the land was still country. (Arsenic is alloyed with lead to make the shot harder.)

The whole, drawn-out affair has dragged residents like the Lumberts from disbelief to despair, from anguish to anger - and now, to resolution.

"We were so happy, as soon as we closed on the house, we grabbed dinner and went back and ate it on the floor," Robin Lumbert recalls of that day in February 2002. "We planned to stay there until we were too old to go down the stairs."

Today, the family is in a new house, two miles away. It's not as big or as fancy, but they're calling it home. "We had to move from what we thought was our future for the safety of our children," Lumbert, 36, says.

Lexington Manor's builder, Ryland Homes, has been buying back houses and will pay cleanup costs, likely to be in the millions. It says it was stunned, too. Ryland cites a written assurance from an environmental firm, hired by the land's previous owner and developer, that said the site was safe for development.

At first, as suspicions mounted last fall and winter that their yards might be tainted, residents were reluctant to discuss the problem. They didn't know how bad it was. They didn't want to hurt property values. The lead would get cleaned up. It would just go away.

Then, as soil was sampled and potentially hazardous levels of lead turned up in yard after yard, homeowners felt cornered. They gathered in heated and anxious neighborhood meetings. They launched lawsuits. They rushed their children to doctors for blood tests.

So far, no lead-related illness has been reported, and for that, everyone is thankful.

But for the 30 families - and 63 children - who lived there last spring and summer and some still today, Lexington Manor has taken its toll.

'The lead'

Ryan Girves, 9, won't go near her back yard.

She's old enough to understand why Mommy is always on the phone or going to a meeting about "the lead." Why people stop them at the grocery and Toys R Us, and pepper them with questions about "the lead."

"Is it safe?"

"How terrible! What are you going to do?"

The Girves family plans to move to another Ryland home in nearby Aspen Trails. They had little choice, says Nicolle Girves, Ryan's mom, who gave birth in July to twins, a boy and girl.

Stay? Raise newborns in a U.S. EPA Superfund cleanup site? Hardly, she says, yet moving out won't be easy, either: "Have you ever tried moving with two newborns?"

The strain has been hard on her youngest daughter, Logan, 4.

"Mommy, can I play outside?" the little girl asked on a sunny day last summer after weeks of rain.

"No," Girves, 36, gently told her. "You know why."

Girves has tried to perk up her family with new bikes. And there are countless trips to parks and pools. Kings Island. McDonald's Playland. Dance lessons.

Anyplace and anything but the subdivision's back yards, where expensive swing sets and trampolines have been untouched for months.

Girves used to carefully limit the time her children watched TV, no more than an hour a day. Now she calls TV "my best friend."

She used to be so proud of her house. It was the first lot built. Now she hates to invite company over.

"It's embarrassing," the second-grade teacher says.

When she had her baby shower last summer, she was ashamed of the flowerbeds. They used to be a colorful explosion of yellow mums, white petunias and red begonias. Now, they're overrun with weeds.

"Everything is dead," she says.

Looking ahead isn't much better. She dreads starting over in another house. Picking up and moving again when they just settled in. Painting every room all over. Installing the oak cabinets and a marble counter in the laundry room.

This house was perfect, she says, taking in her family room filled with artwork, family portraits and four large windows overlooking the back yard with old oak trees.

The Girveses and 17 other families joined in a lawsuit against Ryland and others involved in the lead, including developer Lexington Manor Inc. and environmental consulting firm, The Payne Firm Inc. of Blue Ash, which wrote the assurance that the property was safe for building. Two other families sued separately.

The families settled their suits with Ryland in June and July. Terms are confidential, but most of those who sued plan to move out if they haven't already. Ryland says it will buy back 28 homes. A third of residents, like the Girveses, are relocating to another Ryland home. The remaining 13 homes are empty and mostly owned by Ryland.

The residents are still suing Lexington Manor Inc. and The Payne Firm. Both deny fault.

"We're just in limbo," Girves says. "It's a holding pattern."

'There's no end in sight'

At AnneMarie and Colin Hester's house, their four small children grow more fidgety each day.

The kids - Eleanor, 6 months old; J.D., 1; Maggie, 3, and Beatrice, 4 - haven't been allowed to play in their back yard since March, when the family was told that pellets of lead shot were buried there.

"They've got cabin fever, and there's no end in sight," their mother says.

She first learned there was lead in her subdivision at the December 2002 closing on her house, when a letter briefly outlining the situation was handed to her just before she signed the papers.

The letter from Ryland assured the Hesters that the lead problem wasn't believed to be a health hazard and would be resolved.

"Ryland will make this situation right for each and every one of our homeowners," the letter states.

So, pregnant with Eleanor and on her own at the closing while her husband was out of town, Hester signed.

The company has offered to buy back the house, but they say the offer isn't good enough and may sue.

Today, AnneMarie Hester remembers with a chill how, in her third trimester of pregnancy, she picked through the soil for limestone fossils to share with her children and keep as mementos of the building process.

Her children dug for "dinosaur bones" in an area they now know was used to bury lead-tainted soil after the problem was discovered. Her 1-year-old son, unable yet to walk, sat and played in the dirt and sucked his thumb.

Now, the Hesters are having a home built in West Chester Township, with a different builder.

They had loved their Lexington Manor home with its corner lot, custom-built kitchen and copper-topped butcher block.

"We moved here because this was the perfect place to raise our kids, the perfect lot, the perfect house," Hester says. "We loved this neighborhood."

But she couldn't risk her children's health, no matter how small the chances might be of contamination. The Hesters also weren't inclined to stay as neighbors began moving out, leaving few children for theirs to play with.

"They play with an 85-year-old woman next door, but that's not quite the same. You don't get a second chance with your kids," says the 34-year-old former communications professor.

"Everybody just wants to put this behind them. We just want it over. We thought we were doing everything right for our kids, and we have unknowingly put them in harm's way," Hester says. "Finally we had our dream house. We had our family. We were finally settled in a permanent place in our lives.

"And now we're refugees."

At least now they know

Robin Lumbert sits at her kitchen table and cries.

It's the same kitchen table that became her battleground against Ryland, Lexington Manor Inc. and others involved with the lead. She recalls the day last winter that she learned her yard had lead after paying for a private soil sample.

"We weren't going to back down," she says. "We had to follow through. I was not going to be responsible for selling contaminated property to someone else."

Her kitchen table is where she met with her lawyers late into the night. Where she surfed the Internet at 3 a.m., desperately looking for anything to help her lawsuit, searching for medical data on the impact of lead.

She filled a 20-gallon Rubbermaid tub with every single piece of paper, every soil sample result from her yard, since last December.

She believes she and her husband, Ed, 35, were the first couple to realize how serious the lead contamination was. They were the first to file a lawsuit and publicly speak out after a nearby, longtime resident told one of their neighbors the subdivision is on land that used to be a skeet-shooting range.

Word quickly spread through the neighborhood. And the Lumberts' outspokenness cost them.

Friendships were broken, some that will never mend. One neighbor left a threatening voice mail.

But now, looking back, the Lumberts say it was worth it. At least now, everyone knows.

The Lumberts moved out and into a smaller house at the end of June. They left after settling their lawsuit with Ryland, which paid $320,050 to purchase the home the couple paid $272,433 for in 2002, according to county records.

On the day she closed the front door on her Lexington Manor house for the last time, Lumbert's head throbbed and she cried. Her 7-year-old daughter, Kelly, tried to console her: "Put a smile on your face, Mom. We're going to move from here and have a good life."

Now, the first thing you see when you pull up at the new house are the Lumberts' three children swinging and sliding on a wooden jungle gym in the back yard.

Haley, a brown and black beagle, scampers about. At Lexington Manor, the Lumberts didn't dare get a dog for fear it would become sick from the lead.

Their new house was $25,000 cheaper than their Lexington Manor home. And it's 2,500 square feet, not 3,800 square feet.

It's not on a cul-de-sac. The back yard isn't gated and doesn't end in a line of trees and shrubbery for privacy and good looks.

The Lumberts don't care.

They are out.


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