WASHINGTON (CN) – A Washington development company claims in a federal complaint that the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority fabricated documents and conspired with the city to knock down a building the company had unknowingly constructed over a century-old sewer tunnel.
As recounted in an April 6 complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and city government launched a condemnation case against Edge Investment’s building in 2013 after making fraudulent entries into its computer system.
Edge claims it was D.C. Water’s failure to maintain the tunnel, not Edge’s construction, that caused “lengthy cracks” and other structural issues with the underground structure.
Edge Investments got a permit in April 2013 to build a three-story residential building on a northeast Washington lot, not knowing that 13 feet below the ground was a sewer tunnel built between 1905 and 1906 that carries storm water from the city into the Anacostia River.
Edge says it didn’t know about the tunnel because there was no easement or other document that would have tipped the builder off to its presence. When it started building on the property, nobody came to mark off where it had to dig to avoid damaging the tunnel or told them not to dig, the company claims in a 70-page complaint.
After learning about the tunnel, Edge discovered that the supports for its building still cleared the top of the underground tunnel by eight-and-a-half feet, according to the complaint.
Nevertheless, D.C. Water denied Edge’s application for water and sewer connections in November 2013, after Edge had nearly erected its building, the complaint says.
Edge says D.C. Water then ramped up the disagreement in October 2014, when it contacted the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and falsely claimed to hold a 50 foot easement surrounding the tunnel.
This lead employees in the DCRA to enter a “fake” condemnation case in the agency’s computer, the complaint says.
D.C. Water apparently attempted to force the investigation so it could continue to examine the state of the tunnel, even though it didn’t even look at the tunnel until July 2014, the complaint says.
“Sometime as early as December 2014, DC Water and DCRA agreed that, even though there was no evidence of an actual emergency or any imminent danger to either the NEBTS, the building, or to the public, together they would use the full force of the D.C. government to raze the building as quickly as possible, with as little notice as possible (or no notice at all,) and without any concern whatsoever to the substantive due process rights, the procedural due process right, the constitutional rights and the property rights of Edge,” the complaint reads.
By January, an employee of DCRA had contacted the city’s gas and electric utilities to cancel service to Edge’s building. On January 8, DCRA sent out its first notice to Edge that it planned to raze the company’s building, the plaintiff says.
A series of similar notices followed, all claiming that the building was put up within the fake 50-foot easement. Edge appealed the notices, even though they did not tell the company it had the right to do so, the complaint says.
“None of the raze notices alleged that the building itself was deficient, or that there were building code violations in the building, or that the building itself posed a risk of any kind to a prospective occupant or to the public,” the complaint reads.
The company says it also never had the chance to air its issues with D.C. Water’s case in an administrative hearing, or to challenge the claim that the tunnel was in imminent danger of collapsing.
That kind of hearing might have been useless anyway, as Edge claims D.C. Water put carbon fiber netting over a crack in the tunnel to repair it, a fix that also stopped the company from investigating the damages D.C. Water claimed on its own, according to the complaint.
“In effect, D.C. Water deliberately covered over and destroyed important evidence, knowing that such evidence would be critical for Edge to use to refute DC Water’s claims as to the source, cause and location of the crack,” the complaint reads.
D.C. Water finally knocked down the building on May 18, 2015, using a contractor it had hired well before a court hearing on Edge’s attempts to stop the demolition.
Since the building has come down, D.C. Water and the city government have taken out false liens on the property while DCRA has refused to respond to Edge’s Freedom of Information Act requests, the complaint says.
“The facts, actions, conduct and criminal misconduct described in the complaint, most of which were undertaken under the color of law and deprived Edge of established property rights and honest services, rises to such an extreme deviation from the ordinary standard of care that it shocks the conscience, was wanton, was willful and was done with reckless disregard of, or with conscious and deliberate indifference to, the rights of Edge,” the complaint reads.
Edge seeks $30 million in compensatory and punitive damages under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, as well as for violations of the 5th Amendment and due process rights. It names as defendants the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, the D.C. government and several employees of both, including some who remain unknown.
James Sadowski, an attorney with the Washington firm Greenstein DeLorme, represents Edge and did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson did not immediate provide comment after responding to a request for comment, and the DCRA did not respond to a request for comment sent Monday afternoon.