BRIMFIELD TWP.: How disturbing are the sinkholes on Tom Fioritto's property?
Let him count the ways.
They appear without warning, once toppling his tractor as he tried to mow the yard. A new one that opened a 6-foot-wide, 5-foot-deep cavity two weeks ago took out part of a mulched bed.
The damaged storm sewer line causing the sinkholes floods his backyard, interferes with his septic system's leach field and fouls the neighborhood air on hot days.
Electric and phone utility boxes next to dimpled ground remind him that other utility lines run parallel to the troubled sewer line. The electric box is slanting with the fallen earth.
He's worried that neighborhood children might fall in the fissures; for Halloween, he put up yellow caution tape to warn the trick-or-treaters.
The line of a half-dozen sinkholes points directly at Tamarack Trail just a few yards away, causing him concern that the ground beneath the road might also be eroding.
But three years after the first chasm appeared, Fioritto can't get anyone to accept responsibility for the storm sewer line. The township and the county both say it's not their job to fix it.
At least one county agency thinks that, legally, Fioritto might be on the hook for the costly project.
When Fioritto bought his 4-acre property in 2008, he said it was summer, the ground was dry and the former owners did not disclose any issues with sinkholes or flooding.
But when a wet fall started caving in the ground along the property line between him and his neighbor, Fioritto knew immediately what it was.
He has been a contractor since 1974, he said. His specialty: installing water and sewer lines.
''I figured it's not a big deal; someone needs to put a camera in there and find the problem and put on some repair clamps,'' he said.
Fioritto made his first call to the township. Trustees took a look and made a phone call.
But trustee Mike Kostensky said the Portage County prosecutor advised that the township was only responsible for maintaining lines up to 5 feet from the road.
Kostensky said he didn't want to ''put blame'' on anybody for how the line was installed, but said the sewer line isn't the only problem to have surfaced since the development was built in the 1990s.
''The main entrance was washing away, and last year it was broken up, so we pulled back the asphalt to fix it and there's nothing under there but dirt,'' he said. ''That whole development's a pain.''
Fioritto turned to the county.
In a letter in 2009, he reminded Portage County commissioners that the county engineer required the developer to retain a drainage easement and install the line.
He suggested the county repair the line and assess the costs to all property owners that contribute to the water runoff that the sewer was meant to carry, including landowners of the Willowbrook subdivision and Brimfield Township.
A month later, a county inspector called him back and told him the county did not own the easement on his property, he said.
Fioritto said he spent about $1,500 to hire an attorney to collect documentation proving the county's liability.
While the county-approved plans for the development identify the easement, Fioritto said the attorney could never find evidence the easement was officially ''dedicated'' to the county when the development was completed.
Now he's convinced the county is taking advantage of some paperwork glitch.
''This is the county's responsibility, no doubt about it,'' he said. ''And if it's shoddy work, where were the county inspectors?''
This week, a letter from Portage commissioners to the Beacon Journal said the county investigated the matter in 2009 and decided ''the county is not legally permitted to spend money on private property; this repair cannot be made by the County Engineer.''
The letter identified the real responsible party: the subdivision's homeowners association.
No such group exists.
Fioritto said after speaking with neighbors he believes no association was formed.
James Bierlair, district coordinator for the Portage Soil and Water Conservation District, also said a homeowners association should be responsible for the repairs.
''Nobody wants to foot the bill, but when a development is set up, they should have a homeowners association, and they take on the responsibility for the drainage in that subdivision,'' he said.
In the absence of such a group, the liability ''potentially'' rests with the individual homeowner, Bierlair said.
He said there are miles of drainage lines and ditches around the county for which there aren't records anymore, and in every case, ''the property owners are responsible.''
Bierlair said he visited the Tamarack Trail property a couple of years ago and agreed that either the pipe split apart or was never connected properly. Multiple sinkholes mean multiple failure points, he said.
Before the development, there was a natural wet-weather stream that ran through the property, collecting runoff in the area and depositing it in wetlands behind Fioritto's property.
To free up more land for development, the pipe was an attempt to move that stream underground.
Fioritto has suggested that if he owns the pipe, he should be able to fill it in, especially since it's not doing its job and depositing the water in his backyard instead of in the wetlands.
Bierlair warned that action would be illegal.
''He can't fill it in, but he can fix it,'' Bierlair said, then acknowledged, ''It's not going to be cheap.''