State Politics

Manatee's homeowner rights proposal praised as Willowbrook residents fight back

MANATEE -- For two years, Willowbrook condominium homeowner Roxanne Miller endured an arbitration process to reach a settlement with her home's developer, KB Home.

The process ruined Miller financially, she says, forcing her to sell her car and move back to Chicago after she spent thousands in attorney fees. In the end, the settlement offer from KB Home apparently wasn't enough to recoup her expenses, and she did not take the offer.

So when Miller learned Manatee County attorney Mitchell Palmer had drafted a legislative proposal that would make all mandatory arbitration clauses in residential contracts void, she was overjoyed.

"I think it's a godsend," she said.

Palmer presented the proposal to the county commission board during a public land-use meeting last week. The proposal will be an agenda item during the Florida legislative session in March and presented by the county's Tallahassee lobbyist, Cari Roth.

If passed by the state Legislature, a homeowner could file a lawsuit in circuit court against the contractor rather than be forced to go through a mandatory arbitration process.

Through arbitration, legally binding settlements are made outside of court through a third party.A group of residents from Willowbrook, including Miller, told the board on Aug. 21 mandatory arbitration clauses were included in their contracts with KB Home, which prohibits them from suing the developer for poor construction.

"It's a huge success," Miller said. "I need to see this go national to protect consumers. We would be able to recoup our losses."

Arbitration clauses, however, are common in residential contracts.

"Most builders have arbitration clauses and that's pretty standard," said Alan Anderson, executive vice president of the Manatee-Sarasota Home Builders

Association. "That's almost universal."

Doug Wilson, president and owner of Advanced Management Inc., a community management company, supports the idea. His business manages 140 communities and more than 28,000 homes in the Manatee-Sarasota area.

"I'm in favor of the gesture to make sure a provision is not enforced," he said.

In Willowbrook, an East Manatee community, homeowners have water intrusion on the third- and second-floor balconies, which has led to sinking floors and loose guard rails. Interior damage includes wood deterioration and wall moisture. Some residents said they've spotted evidence of mold.

Since Aug 3, county building officials have ruled 35 of 71 inspected balconies are unsafe.

Residents have written thousands of letters to state and federal officials and agencies regarding the situation.

"I would like to commend the residents for standing tough as a community," said state Rep. Greg Steube, R-Parrish. "In my two years in legislation, I have never seen a community come together to rectify a situation that everyone agrees is a bad situation."

Steube said the proposal brings other home-buying issues to light.

"Do we need some improvements to the (state) building code?" he said. "We should want to look at how it can be prevented than to handle it after it happened."

Palmer said it's possible other state agencies and county government could support the proposal.

"Strength in numbers? Absolutely," he said. "Is this something the Florida Association of Counties mightbe interested in? Possibly.And that association employs its own lobbyist. It'sconceivable we could hook up with other counties orthat the FAC as wholewould become interested in pursuing this legislative agenda."