Eight residents of Washington Avenue, including a senior city official, are suing the city, claiming that their homes suffered serious damage from efforts to fix the massive sinkhole that left the street closed to traffic for more than four years before it was finally filled in late 2015.
The sinkhole opened in the spring of 2011, caused, engineers believe, by the collapse of a century-old tunnel built to carry stormwater from the neighborhood to the Rondout Creek, as well as soil erosion around a vertical shaft built in the 1990s to improve stormwater runoff. The sinkhole stubbornly resisted remediation efforts until the late fall of 2015 when an engineering firm hired by the city carried out a large-scale project to provide a final fix. The work included injecting grout below ground to create a protective arch around the tunnel, and using vibrating shafts driven deep underground to pack earth around the vertical shaft.
While the earth-packing work was under way, residents of houses adjacent to the sinkhole reported extensive damage to their homes, including cracks in basement floors and foundations and doors that would not close properly, indicating that the entire structure had shifted.
In November 2015, City Engineer Ralph Swenson acknowledged reports of damage to eight homes fronting the sinkhole. The problems, he said, began during the grouting phase of the project when crews pumped large quantities of concrete below ground in the area. The city, anticipating potential impacts from the underground work, carried out a structural survey of homes in the neighborhood just before the project began. Then-mayor Shayne Gallo promised Washington Avenue residents that they would be made whole for any damage incurred in the process and, prior to leaving office, called on incoming Mayor Steve Noble to quickly and completely honor all claims from those impacted.
“I would hope that the next administration will honor what we’ve been saying all along, that we will pay for any damages.” Gallo said in November 2015. “They must be made whole.”
Mayor Steve Noble responded to requests for comment through spokeswoman Megan Weiss-Rowe, who said that the city could not comment on ongoing litigation except to say that no settlement talks had taken place regarding the damage claims. Attorney Matthew J. Greisemer said this week that his clients had submitted damage claim forms issued by the city and undergone a round of depositions in accordance with general municipal law. But, he said, neither attorneys for the city’s insurer nor the city’s own corporation counsel had responded with an offer to settle the claims.
“At that point we had no choice,” said Greisemer of the lawsuit.
‘A total loss’
Greisemer’s suit lists as plaintiffs seven residents or owners of four properties on Washington Avenue. Among the plaintiffs are City Planner Suzanne Cahill and husband Michael at 104 Washington Ave.; Jessica Price and Jason Selden of 92 Washington Ave.; Stuart and Elizabeth Smedes of 98 Washington Ave.; and William H. Smith of 88 Washington Ave. The suit names the City of Kingston as well as GEA Engineering, Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers and GEO-Solutions Inc., private contractors who played a role in the design and implementation of the sinkhole plan.
The lawsuit claims that the problems began on Nov. 1, 2015, in the midst of the underground work, and have continued since. The suit includes a litany of issues including buckling floors, bowing exterior walls, shifting porches and damage to heating and air conditioning systems. In each case, the suit alleges, residents and property owners were denied the use of their property for a period of time and suffered monetary damages. A second lawsuit, filed by Pamela Ruzzo of 95 Washington Ave. names the City of Kingston as a sole defendant. Ruzzo’s attorney Matthew Jankowski described his client’s home as “a total loss” following the construction project. Greisemer said his clients had also suffered severe and long–lasting damage to their homes.
“These are really hard-working people and for a lot of them this is their largest asset,” said Greisemer. “And they’ve seen it basically crumble before their eyes because of nothing that they’ve done or had any control over.”
If the city ends up paying for the damaged houses, it will be the latest unanticipated expense in a project that has already cost taxpayers some $8.7 million. The 2015 remediation project and earlier unsuccessful efforts cost taxpayers $7.6 million. In addition the city has set aside another $1.2 million to clear a blocked sewage line near the sinkhole. Engineers believe the blockage was caused when grout injected underground to build the archway infiltrated the decaying stormwater tunnel and made its way to a narrow section of sewage line.