Owner seeking town’s help for property damage

By Alex Bridges

FRONT ROYAL — A sewer backup at a downtown property in May damaged a historic building and forced out its longtime tenants.

Patricia Callahan, owner of Callahan Hall, 222 S. Royal Ave., says the town or its insurance provider should help her recoup the costs to repair the building. Callahan bought the property in 1989 and restored the Victorian building the following year.

“It’s been very damaging to me — financially and to the building — and what does the town do, instead of coming up helping me they’re fighting me every step along the way,” Callahan said Thursday.

The morning of May 16, as a severe storm swept through the area, workers with the law firm of Dulaney Lauer & Thomas saw sewage coming from a toilet in their offices, Callahan said Thursday. About 4 inches of sewage flowed out of the bathroom and into nearby rooms.

Photographs taken of the building shortly after the backup show water and sewage covering the floors in the bathroom and adjacent areas. Callahan also has a photograph of debris she says came from the sewer pipe to her property and caused the backup.

A plumbing company responded and, when a snake was used to check the sewer pipes, a wad of debris was pulled. The plumber said the debris likely blocked the flow, sending sewage back to the building, Callahan said. She contends that an improperly maintained sewer line, not an act of God, led to the backup.

Callahan’s property insurance provider covered the $10,000 cost to clean up the building, she said. The provider then promptly dropped her, Callahan said. More than four months after the incident, Callahan has not been able to have the building repaired. Estimates provided to Callahan put the cost of repairs at about $20,000, which would include replacing the floors. Callahan said she hopes the building can be repaired without having to rip up the original flooring.

Callahan says her property has devices meant to prevent sewage back-flow connected to lines in the front and back of the building. Town officials claim the property has only one device in the back of the property.

The law firm that had operated out of the building for years vacated the building after the sewer backup. Carl Lauer declined to comment on the situation Thursday. Without tenants, Callahan lost the steady income she needed to pay the mortgage. The property is now headed for auction later this month. Callahan continues to work on the building in an effort to attract a new tenant.

Callahan presented information to Front Royal and town officials filed the claim with the Virginia Municipal League Insurance Program. A July 18 letter from claims specialist J. Scott Martin to Callahan explained why the provider denied her claim.

“The information that was provided to me in the course of that investigation indicates that there was a storm that dropped 4 [inches] of rain at the time of this loss,” the letter states. “Very simply, the Town systems were over-charged by that amount of water. I do not believe that there is anything the Town could do to prevent this loss.”

Hollie S. Cammarasana, director of communications for the insurance carrier, issued a statement Thursday related to the claim.

“VML Insurance Programs denied Ms. Callahan’s property damage claim after it was determined that a weather event on May 15 caused an unusual amount of precipitation to occur within a short time period,” the statement reads. “As the town did not cause, nor were they negligent in preventing this event from occurring, VMLIP has denied liability for this claim.”

More than four months after the incident, Callahan went to Town Council and explained her situation. Council members voiced sympathy for Callahan but said their hands were tied. Town Manager Steve Burke indicated Thursday that Front Royal has little say on damage claims.

“Any claim that is filed the town turns over to our insurance carrier for their review and consideration and we have no influence or little influence on any resolution from our insurance carrier,” Burke said. “They investigate it and determine if there is cause for the insurance carrier providing any sort of coverage.”

Council asked Callahan at the work session to provide any new information that officials then could submit to the insurance provider for reconsideration of the claim.

“To date, we have not received any new information from Ms. Callahan but would welcome it if it exists,” Burke said.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com