Workmanship, inspections questioned in Willowbrook homes

nwilliams@bradenton.comAugust 9, 2012 

MANATEE -- As of Wednesday, roughly 10 percent of town homes inside the Willowbrook community in East Manatee had been ruled unsafe by county inspectors, an alarming number for a community that opened for sale in 2006.

The county began a wave of inspections inside the 270-unit community on Friday. Of the 27 units inspected so far, 20 have been stamped with warning notifications.

At the root of the problem is water damage from rain coming in to the second floor balconies. The water damage has led to deterioration, sinking floors, loosened rails on the balconies and the separation of window frames. The deterioration has spread to the inside of the homes, which also show signs of mold.

A county official said the

residents will not be evicted.

The homes were built by KB Home, a California-based company and one of the largest developers in the nation. Residents are asking the company to buy back their homes. Cara Kane, a Florida representative with KB Home, released a statement Wednesday regarding the ongoing inspections.

"KB Home remains committed to customer satisfaction and we stand behind our product. We were actively making the necessary repairs and then received a claim from the (Willowbrook) Association, which caused some delays on our part as we evaluated the claim. Today, KB Home continues to work closely with the Association and building department to reach a resolution and begin the repair process within the next few days."

State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, met with roughly 30 residents Wednesday to discuss their issues. Bennett, whose term ends this November, said he has been in contact with KB Home and the county.

"KB Home will cooperate, I promise you that," he told the crowd.

Manatee County Commissioner Donna Hayes was also present at the meeting. Willowbrook is located in her district.

Bennett advised the residents to "unite as one voice" and hire a private engineering firm, "and I will help you negotiate with KB Home."

Sanjay Kurian, an attorney representing the Willowbrook Association, said neither he, nor his client, will comment on the matter.

Homeowner or condo associations, which are created by home building companies that eventually transfer control of the association to residents, is responsible for residential property outside the living area.

As more problems surface, however, the answer to the question of who's to blame for faulty or negligent construction and inspection is becoming more clear.

Mike Hamilton, a licensed contractor and president of CMM Commercial Contractors Inc., performed a thorough inspection of the residence of Willowbrook homeowner Roxanne Miller last year and testified before the American Arbitration Association on the condition of her home.

"Frankly, everyone is at fault," he said. "The builder for not seeing the problems, subcontractors for not doing a good job and inspectors. There's no way an inspector could ever pass that. It was a drive-by inspection. The inspector signed off on it and never looked at it. The only way this could have passed was if an inspector closed his eyes and signed off on it."

Hamilton said he saw problems with flashing, a construction detail that keeps water from entering joints between construction materials, architectural plans not being followed, boards not being nailed together, a defective wind system and stucco being installed incorrectly. Stucco is sometimes used to cover construction material.

Hamilton also said the lumber used to build the home was infected with mold before it was ever installed and the contamination continued to spread throughout the structure. Miller said she began having breathing issues and eventually, her doctor diagnosed her problem as an allergic reaction to mold.

Documents provided by Miller regarding her arbitration trial show an engineer that testified on behalf of KB Home, James Mehltretter, agreed with most of the findings, including active mold in the home.

Hamilton said he informed residents in Miller's unit and recommended that they vacate the community. He suspects all of the homes in the community were built with the same faults.

The county approved a certificate of occupancy, certifying the town homes met Florida building codes. John Barnott, director of the county building and services department, said the inspections were performed by the county, not by permit-by-affidavit, which allows contractors to hire an engineer or architect to perform the inspection. Barnott also said materials used by construction companies met building codes set forth by the Florida Department of Business And Professional Regulation.

A spokeswoman for the department declined to confirm or deny whether the state is investigating KB Home.

Calls made to engineering and construction companies involved in the Willowbrook project were not returned Wednesday.

Hamilton was not surprised when told of the high number of homes being ruled unsafe in Willowbrook.

"The violations started when wood reached the site," he said.

Nick Williams, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7049. Twitter:@_1NickWilliams

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