Q: We have purchased 13 acres of land with a gorgeous mountain view in North Georgia that previously had chicken houses on it. The houses were torn down two owners ago. There were 6 total houses, 3 new and 3 very old and collapsing.
We did all of the “right” things, so we thought, during the due diligence period. Perc testing, plat maps, checked on zoning, checked for easements, talked to a well driller, had an architect view the site. I even spoke with an expert on the impact of chicken houses on soil and environment to see if there was additional testing we should conduct (nothing recommended). Everything checked out perfectly. We closed on the property.
After closing, however, we met a neighbor who told us that the person who tore down the chicken houses did not haul the debris away but rather dug trenches and buried them. Apparently, there’s also an old mobile home buried as well (not as concerning for building due to its location on the site).
The buried chicken houses appear to be smack dab in the middle of the perfect house site. As we would like to build a house and barn and move there, this is HIGHLY concerning.
I’m not even sure where to start, do I contact a builder or an excavator to find out what to do? From my reading, it sounds like ground penetrating radar may be one way to at least locate the debris. Do we factor this into the total house cost and just move forward with planning? Do we find all of the debris or just those on our building sites and let the chips fall where they may with the pasture land? This worries me too since I do want to have livestock.
We have also discussed re-selling the land, but we are ethical people who could never hide this information from a buyer as someone did previously. Therefore, this isn’t really an option as we would take a substantial loss.
I’ve already talked to my real estate agent who is going to ask an attorney about legal recourse. However, this is not likely an option due to the multiple hands the property has passed through and the difficulty determining who knew about this issue.
Any advice would be much appreciated, it’s left us speechless pretty much and completely blown our confidence in next steps. — R. Burnes
A: Unpleasant surprises when buying land are unfortunately a common occurrence. It sounds like you did a thorough job of due diligence. Despite a buyer’s best efforts, however, it’s often impractical and financially prohibitive to cover every possible scenario.
In general, responsibility for toxic materials found on or under land that you purchase, resides first with you the owner, whether or not you caused or knew about the hazard (or should have known). This is the principle of strict liability which holds that anyone associated with hazardous materials can be liable whether or not they caused the problem. The principle of joint and several liability usually apply as well. These assign partial liability to any party that contributed to the problem. Unfortunately the burden falls on you to find and sue these other parties who caused the problem.
Some owners like yourselves escape liability by proving that they are “innocent purchasers” who, despite diligent efforts to investigate the site were unaware of the problem. Of course, getting yourself off the hook and finding the guilty parties requires legal action which is rarely cost-effective for a moderate problem like this on a residential building site.
As far as I can tell, manure from a small chicken operation is not considered hazardous agricultural waste in most jurisdictions, as long as it has been managed responsibly. The rest of the materials pushed in the trenches – wood and chicken wired – is also relatively benign, but may also contain items such as asphalt roofing, and miscellaneous supplies and equipment that may be less environmentally friendly.
Disposing of the chicken house debris into trenches poses two possible problems, pollution of soil and drinking water from nitrates and other materials – and the issue of building on fill. Assuming the materials in the trenches probably contains manure, building materials, and maybe chicken carcasses, there is a possibility of nitrates and other materials reaching your well water, especially if the well is located anywhere nearby. Best to site the well at least 100 ft. away. Also, have the well tested at least once a year for water quality, a good idea with any well.
Since you are planning to build in probable location of the buried debris, that you be the logical place to start your excavation and investigation. If you are planning to build a full foundation, you will probably be digging deep enough to clear out all the debris. So this should not add too much to the job, other than the cost of disposal. If you are building a slab-on-grade or crawlspace, you will have to fill back in with well-compacted backfill before building. You may want to hire a geotechnical, civil, or soil engineer to oversee this process.
Once you pull up some debris, you will have a better idea of its contents and the potential hazard. This can help you decide whether it is worth trying to find and excavate all the remaining debris. Unless this was a very large poultry operation, my guess is that the debris is not sufficient to merit large-scale soil remediation.
However, you may need to do additional excavation at the barn site or use alternative support systems to build a barn over buried rubble. For example, if the debris is sufficiently decomposed and compacted that it is stable, you may be able to build you barn on helical piers rather than traditional concrete piers.
Finally, what to do about the mobile home? If it’s a motorized vehicle, it could contain gasoline and oil or it may have already leaked out. If it’s a towable design, it’s of less concern. In terms of your peace of mind and property resale value, it might be worth digging up and removing at some point in time.
There are a variety of imaging technologies to help find underground debris. Before hiring anyone, be sure to check their references. You want someone who has a proven track record. The same is true if you decide to hire a professional to conduct an environmental site assessment. This requires both technical expertise and deep knowledge of both state and federal regulations. At this point in time, it is probably premature to do this type of analysis. If you discover more surprises when you excavate, you may want to get a fuller assessment of the site.
Always get fixed prices or detailed estimates before proceeding with this or other work. This holds for both contractors and consultants.
It sounds like you’re your discussions with experts, so far, has suggested that additional testing or assessment is not required at this juncture. That’s a good sign. Once you get a little father along, you may want to get further input. I think your thoughtful and responsible approach will lead to a satisfactory outcome that will not break the bank! — Steve Bliss, BuildingAdvisor.com