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    Suit: Homes built on dump site

    Nineteen Martin Luther King Village residents file suit against the city of Tampa, a builder and two nonprofit agencies.

    By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 10, 2002

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    TAMPA -- In the summer of 1998, as Yvonne Dudley began to dig a garden outside her home in Martin Luther King Village, she made a startling discovery.

    The more she turned her spade, the more it appeared she was living on a dump.

    As she dug into the earth, up came an old tire, concrete blocks, shards of glass, a baby stroller. Dudley, a 42-year-old mother, began to notice noxious odors coming from the ground. She said she later developed sinus problems, and began to lose her hair.

    Tuesday, Dudley and 18 of her neighbors went to court, accusing the city of Tampa, the construction company that built their homes and two nonprofit agencies involved in the project of fraud, deceptive trade practices, conspiracy and racketeering.

    The residents allege that public and private parties conspired to use Mayor's Challenge Fund money to construct low-income homes on what was called the 26th Street tract, an abandoned dump site they say remains environmentally dangerous.

    "These homes were sold to working people who expected them to be built on solid ground," said Miami attorney Gary E. Davidson. Instead, they were built on "property with soil and environmental problems."

    The civil lawsuit, which seeks $2-million in damages plus an unspecified punitive award, adds heat to a simmering grand jury investigation into former city housing chief Steve LaBrake and THAP, the nonprofit Tampa Hillsborough Action Plan.

    The suit alleges that under LaBrake's direction the city's program to develop small subdivisions like Martin Luther King Village "evolved into a veritable 'slush fund' used variously to benefit its administrators and to offer low-cost and guaranteed mortgages to insiders and their cronies."

    THAP purchased the 26th Street tract in September 1994, the suit says, just 10 days after receiving an engineering report that said the property was covered with "surface fill containing unsuitable materials" that would have to be hauled away before homes were built.

    THAP ignored the engineering recommendation and 15 months later sold the tract for $75,000 to the Tampa United Methodist Centers, a nonprofit organization that partnered with the city and Allstate Homes to build the 21 Martin Luther King Village homes, according to the suit.

    LaBrake, who left his city position in December, is the subject of a state ethics investigation and a grand jury inquiry into the building of a 4,100-square-foot home in South Tampa with his fiancee and former city aide, Lynne McCarter.

    THAP's former chief, Chester M. Luney, is the target of federal investigators from the FBI, Housing and Urban Development Department and the inspector general for the Veterans Affairs Department. Agents are scrutinizing Luney's role as a VA psychologist who wrote grants funneling federal money to THAP, as well as his use of THAP money to provide contracts and favors to McCarter.

    Phone calls to LaBrake, THAP and Allstate Homes were not returned Tuesday.

    The city maintains that the 26th Street tract was never identified as a dump site or landfill during a comprehensive cataloging of waste sites. City Attorney James Palermo said Tuesday he could not comment on the lawsuit until he had studied it.

    A spokesperson for Tampa United Methodist Centers said the agency was still investigating claims.

    "We are trying to pull information together to see if the residents' concerns are valid," said Holly Vreeland of the centers. "We can say we run a nationally recognized housing organization that has put 1,000 families into homes, and we would not be involved in something as outlandish as what is contained in the suit."

    The Martin Luther King Village plaintiffs contend that the centers never insisted on remedying problems at the 26th Street tract after buying the land, even when Allstate Homes discovered troubling subterranean material after beginning home construction.

    After finding a layer of "fibrous organic material" underground, according to the lawsuit, Allstate president Steve Hansen demanded an additional $350 per house, apparently to pay for buttressing the foundation.

    The Tampa United Methodist Centers' Harriett Stone rejected the demand after consulting with LaBrake, telling Hansen in a 1996 letter that Allstate had been given notice of "possible problems on the site."

    The suit asserts that Stone's letter shows that the centers and the city recognized hazardous conditions in the soil before the homes were built but did nothing about them.

    Davidson said three independent soil engineers examined the property last year and confirmed the previous engineering report: A significant amount of concrete, asphalt, metal, nails, glass, plastic and wood were found at a depth of 4 to 6 feet, suggesting soil that might shift and raising the specter of possible sinkholes.

    "When I signed the papers for this house, I thought I would grow old here," Dudley said Tuesday. "Now, we just want out. We want to live somewhere it's safe."

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