Willowbrook homeowners not satisfied with county report

nwilliams@bradenton.comOctober 31, 2012 

BRADENTON -- Residents living in the Willowbrook condominium community in East Manatee are still searching for resolution in their housing nightmare.

Expecting an admission of failed inspections by the county building department during a county commission meeting Tuesday, the frustrated homeowners instead were told the structural problems in their community were possibly the fault of the development's architect and engineer.

But the homeowners refused to accept the notion of the county not being held responsible for approving the construction of the units, insisting that local government is responsible for the safety of its residents.

A month after proposing state legislation that would void mandatory arbitration clauses in contracts for the sale and construction of homes -- which are included in the Willowbrook contracts -- county commissioners voted Tuesday to remove the proposal from its legislative agenda.

Commissioners were concerned that such a provision would have little chance of passage; that ensuring the quality of construction in a home sale is the buyer's responsibility; and that it would add another layer of government bureaucracy.

Commissioner Michael Gallen disputed those arguments, saying such a law would "give us some authority," and help prevent shoddy developers from taking advantage of homebuyers.

Nick Sommers, a Willowbrook homeowner, said it is the public duty of commissioners to pursue legislation.

"What we are asking is to follow through with the powers given to you," Sommers said.

"The wool hasn't been pulled over my eyes," said Dan Koehler, another Willowbrook resident.

Per the commissioners' request, John Barnott, director of the county's building and development services, reported the history and findings of inspections done by the county on the 272-unit community, where dozens of residents have issues with water intrusion, sinking floors, wall moisture and mold.

In a memorandum submitted to the county commission, Barnott stated "the problems we see today are the result of water intrusion because of weatherproofing and quality of construction issues that are not subject to the building code."

Barnott has repeatedly said throughout the Willowbrook investigation the county only approves the design of projects that meet the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulations building code. Barnott went on to surmise that repairs to the damaged structures in Willowbrook performed by KB Home, the developer of the community, followed the same, flawed engineering plan.

"There have been two, maybe three attempts and that didn't work," he said.

Residents disagreed.

"Weatherproofing is part of the building code," said Armando Oyola-Delgado, a Willowbrook resident who works in the construction industry.

The county has declared 46 balconies in Willowbrook unsafe since inspections began in early August. The inspections were conducted at the request of the residents. Barnott told the county commission that 10 permits have been issued to begin repairs in Willowbrook, but residents say the repairs are not for homes ruled unsafe.

The condo association, which owns all property outside the drywall, has signed an agreement with developer KB Home to hire a third-party contractor to make the needed repairs at the expense of KB Home. KB Home has deposited $2 million in an escrow account that will not go below $500,000.

Some of the commissioners were also displeased with the report.

"I don't have a comfort level today," said county commissioner Joe McClash. "I wanted to know what worked and what didn't work."

Mickey Palmer, the county attorney, advised the county commission not to get involved because it is a "private dispute." Palmer suggested the county concede authority to the State Department of Business and Professional Regulations.

"They have the real hammer," he said. "Allow DBPR to do their investigation and allow this to play out."

Citing state statute, a spokeswoman for the department did not confirm or deny whether any complaints or investigation exists involving KB Home.

After the commission took a lunch break, the frustration spilled into the government building's lobby, where several homeowners cornered Barnott. The homeowners questioned Barnott about hurricane straps not being found in some of the homes, whether he had actually visited any of the condemned balconies and why his department has yet to take any action against KB Home.

The Willowbrook Condominium Association was given 30 days by the county to address the unsafe conditions on the balconies. The time allotted to address the situation began once letters were mailed to the association from the county. County officials previously told the Herald that if the association does not address the unsafe conditions within that time, the county will step in.

"It's now November," Oyola-Delgado told Barnott.

Barnott said if violations are cited during the audit of ongoing repairs in Willowbrook, action will be taken.

"If they don't meet the code, we can fine them," Barnott said.

Oyola-Delgado then invited Barnott out to the community to show him the locations of possible violations.

"It's put up or shut up," Oyola-Delgado said.

-- Sara Kennedy contributed to this report.

Nick Williams, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at 941-741-0411 ext. 7049.

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