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Sedgwick developers sue to silence homeowner

A judge has declined to order a critic of "shabby construction'' to keep quiet, but a lawsuit moves forward.

By CHASE SQUIRES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 30, 2002

MEADOW POINTE -- Daniel Portalatin put up his money for a new townhouse. Now the developer who sold it to him wants him to shut up.

Portalatin said he paid $102,000 in October for his home in the Sedgwick subdivision, a neighborhood of townhomes at the east end of sprawling Meadow Pointe. On Wednesday, Sedgwick developers complained to a judge that Portalatin is too vocal in his criticism of their building practices, has made false allegations and is hurting business.

They want him silenced.

Portalatin says he'll fight the developers until they fix his house. And he said he's not alone. Neighbors have held meetings and threatened to picket Sedgwick properties. Residents who have complained live in townhomes built by Premier Design Homes of Florida Inc.

"This is a big corporation versus John Q. Public," Portalatin said Wednesday. "They can't stop me from speaking at homeowners meetings. They can't stop me from talking to someone who comes to my door and asks me about the neighborhood. It's my First Amendment right."

Sedgwick attorneys asked Pasco Circuit Judge Maynard Swanson on Wednesday to silence Portalatin's complaints. The judge declined, ordering only that Portalatin must not delete items on his computers that could be used as evidence. Portalatin said he has no intention of deleting anything.

But Sedgwick is pursuing its efforts to quiet its critic in the full lawsuit, filed in circuit court. A preliminary hearing is set for July 16.

Sedgwick attorney Karen Trafford in her motions admitted the company has had quality problems. The lawsuit agrees windows leaked and that some electrical appliances didn't work.

"Plaintiff took immediate action to address and/or repair warranty items," Trafford wrote. She said the company also fired the person in charge of those items.

When asked by the company, 38 of the 52 to 54 owners in the development filed forms detailing 250 areas that needed repair, and the company has set about fixing the problems, Trafford reported.

Trafford did not return telephone calls to her office Wednesday. But in her filing she accused Portalatin of being potentially violent, said he harassed company employees and that he warned potential customers not to buy.

As a result, Trafford wrote, buyers under contract have balked at closings. Other potential customers have turned away. Property values have been affected and "sales of new townhomes in Sedgwick have been hampered and have begun to decline dramatically," Trafford wrote.

Portalatin, a retired New York law enforcement officer, said he's not a violent or aggressive person and denies wrongdoing. He said he's fed up with flaws in a new home.

He said because of leaky windows, his interior walls rotted and molded, and a counter top had to be replaced. In addition, he said his floors have been damaged, his light-colored rugs are stained by work crews coming in and out to fix damage, and the doors swell and jam.

"This is a new house," he said. "It was shabby construction work."

Nearby resident David Hernandez reported other problems at his townhouse. He said his windows also had to be replaced, and he said repair crews don't use sound building practices. He said the stucco from his house was poorly applied, and it took months to get builders to repair problems.

Throughout the neighborhood, passersby can see areas where stucco has been removed to replace windows. Other buildings show areas where stucco has been patched.

"I moved in here Dec. 15. First day, I'm moving furniture in, I feel water on my head," Hernandez said. "I look up, there's a huge wet spot on the ceiling. A big leak. It's the air conditioner. They fixed it this month."

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