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    Furor builds over damaged townhomes

    With repair estimates running as high as $5-million, Nature's Watch homeowners and their association are suing over who will have to pay.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 2000


    EAST LAKE -- Bills to repair extensive water damage in several luxury townhouses at Nature's Watch at Boot Ranch are starting to come due, and residents and the homeowners association have filed two lawsuits over who should pay for repairs.

    The homeowners association has estimated the damage at $2.5-million to $5-million -- or about $13,700 to $27,400 per owner -- in the 182-unit gated community, according to the association's president.

    The howeowners association has sued the developer and builder of Nature's Watch in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court and says that shoddy work is to blame for water and termite damage in many buildings.

    In a second case, 62 homeowners have sued the homeowners association, claiming it has overstepped its bounds in assessing them for the cost of repairs.

    "It is a total mess," said Douchka Noren, president of the Eagles Reserve Homeowners' Association, which is the association for Nature's Watch.

    Noren said board members -- who soon may be ousted by a majority of residents -- concluded the homeowners association should start repairs and that the cost ought to be shared by all homeowners.

    Noren blames Nature's Watch's woes on its developer, Eagles Reserve Ltd.

    "It's shameful. The first six buildings were incredibly poorly constructed," she said.

    Last month, the homeowners association filed a lawsuit against Eagles Reserve Ltd. and the general contractor, Bama Construction Co. The suit, which seeks more than $15,000, contends that construction did not comply with permitted plans or standard building codes.

    On Friday, Richard Geiger, chairman of Eagles Reserve Ltd., which was dissolved in December 1998, said he blamed the property managers hired by the association to maintain the development. Representatives for Management & Associates, the property managers, which has not been named in either of the lawsuits, could not be reached for comment.

    Instead of re-painting the buildings every five years, Geiger said, property managers pressure-washed buildings. The paint, which is designed to make buildings waterproof, should not be pressure-washed, he said. And if they are, he said, the seals and windows need to be re-caulked.

    "They blew all the caulking out of all the buildings," Geiger said.

    As a result, he said, water seeped through the windows and ran down some walls.

    Moreover, Geiger thinks the claims of damage were grossly overblown.

    "It's a big mess that we have nothing to do with," Geiger said. "The suit is completely ridiculous."

    Corporate records show that Bama Construction Inc. of Clearwater was dissolved in 1998. The company's director, Timothy E. Giddens, did not return a telephone message left at his home Friday afternoon.

    Although the association is responsible for exterior repairs, there is some dispute over what is considered exterior. Lawyers for the 62 homeowners who sued the association contend exterior means only the outside walls, while the association has interpreted exterior to mean everything to the outside of interior walls, which includes such things as insulation, studs and plywood.

    Already one building with four apartments has been skinned, with the exterior removed, studs reinforced, the roof replaced and stucco re-applied. Work on another building already is under way.

    "The first six buildings are in very bad shape," Noren said. "Other buildings have some problems, too."

    The association already sent has all residents in Nature's Watch special assessments of $4,000 each. Larger assessments are on the way, Noren said.

    The lawsuit against the homeowners association seeks to halt the assessments. Those costs, and even the decision whether to make the repairs, ought to be made by individual homeowners, not the association, said attorney Daniel Harris, one of three attorneys representing the 62 homeowners.

    "The crux of the lawsuit is that the homeowners association is not empowered to deal with interior structural matters," Harris said.

    "This is not a condominium," Harris said. He noted that homeowners have individual insurance policies.

    That is not to say repairs aren't needed, Harris added.

    "There are numerous instances of shoddy construction," he said.

    The question, he said, is whether the homeowners association has the obligation to fix the problems and the right to assess the homeowners for it.

    "It's a rather catastrophic condition that has befallen this development," he said.

    Giorgio Vallar, another of the attorneys representing the 62 homeowners, said a movement is afoot to recall the current homeowners association board.

    "They are assessing these people out of their homes," Vallar said.

    Noren said she doesn't blame the homeowners for being angry. The cost of repairs is highAnd the board welcomes the lawsuit as a way to settle the issue of the association's responsibility.

    "Everyone is getting a little desperate," she said.

    Noren said she and several other board members plan to resign before they're ousted. But what new members will soon find, she said, is that they will face the same difficult dilemma.

    "It will cost money sooner or later," Noren said.

    The alternative is not to fix the problems, in which case many more will suffer huge losses in property value, she said.

    "We're caught between a rock and a hard place," Noren said. "Our board has done its best."

    Noren, who moved to Nature's Watch two years ago, said she and other board members just want to clean the mess up.

    "I really love this community," she said. "It is nice and quiet. I love it here. I want to get this problem done and over with."

    - Staff writer Deborah O'Neil contributed to this report. Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

    Recent coverage

    Dreams of townhouse living upended (August 6, 2000)

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