Coast Bank: Sue builder CCI, not us

The bank tries to distance itself from angry customers seeking loan relief.

By James Thorner
Published March 8, 2007

Threatened with lawsuits from scores of disgruntled customers, Coast Financial Holdings is deflecting anger towards the alleged source of its troubles: St. Petersburg builder Construction Compliance Inc.

Since CCI announced this year its inability to deliver 482 homes in Sarasota County financed through Coast, customers have asked their lawyers to try to relieve construction loan debts totaling $70-million.

But on Wednesday, bank spokesman and adviser Tramm Hudson said he considers the legal moves displaced. It's the builder, not the bank, that failed its end of the bargain.

"They have other options," Hudson said of customers considering suing Coast. "They had a contract with a builder who defaulted on them. We were the lender; we were not the originator of the deal."

The decision to distance itself from CCI is part of Coast's strategy to resolve a standoff that threatens the $670-million community bank's survival as an independent business.

When Coast and CCI's troubles became public Jan. 19, Coast took a hard line: CCI customers must repay their loans in full, including interest CCI failed to pay during construction. The bank is sounding a bit more conciliatory these days.

It's provided a list of builders for the 265 homes abandoned partway through construction and strapped with liens from unpaid contractors. Most recently Coast has offered discounts of $10,000 if customers pay off the loans in one swoop.

One proposed replacement for CCI, Enchanted Homes in Fort Myers, said it plans to assume work on 12 houses. Most are near completion and missing appliances, carpets and other finishing touches. "My intention is to go in and clean it up," Enchanted owner Tom Gillespie said of the busted CCI deals.

CCI customers, some sitting on vacant lots on which they owe $85,000, have approached such offers warily. They include investor Mike Wood, a Zephyrhills medical device salesman with contracts on two CCI houses.

"My attorney told me don't start construction, don't sign anything, don't move forward until we get though the first round of negotiating with the bank," Wood said.

CCI president Jesse Battle III couldn't be reached for comment. In a move this week toward possible dissolution, CCI sold its headquarters at 646 First Ave. S. in St. Petersburg.

In previous interviews, CCI representatives have denied Coast played as passive a role in the deals as Hudson contends. CCI singled out Phil Coon, the Coast executive in charge of residential lending, for pushing so many deals that CCI couldn't keep up.

Coast fired Coon and his wife, Melissa, last month, the only bank executives to lose their jobs in the CCI affair.