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Susan Taylor Martin
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The long, lonely fight
By COLLINS CONNER
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 27, 1999
But next to the living room is Pearl's bunker, a 12- by 11-foot office into which he has shoe-horned a desk, two computers, a copier, phone and fax, a binding machine and three four-drawer file cabinets.
It is the only room in the house with the shades drawn. And it is where, every day at 6 a.m., Pearl wedges himself to assemble booklets of evidence that his $165,000 house was poorly designed and constructed.
Pearl's crusade of nearly three years triggered the Times investigation of gable home designs.
It was J.C. Russello, an engineer hired by Pearl, who spotted the gable-wall weakness in his house.
Clutching Russello's report, Pearl pleaded his case to every county and state official he could buttonhole:
"I says, 'You understand that you have a professional engineer telling you the (gable walls) don't meet code? If he's right, I'm living with a dangerous thing there.' ''
Twice, Hernando County building officials climbed into Pearl's attic to examine the gable bracing, and twice, they found no problems.
Pearl filed complaints against the architect who sealed the Aberdeen model's house plans, the Regency Communities' contractor who built it, Hernando County Development Director Grant Tolbert and three of his employees who vouched for the construction, an engineer who affirmed their findings, and a cluster of state workers who dismissed Pearl's concerns.
Pearl's persistence paid off:
In August 1997, an engineer hired by the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation found several construction defects in Pearl's home and said the local building official's claims to the contrary were wrong.
As a consequence of the expert's report, state regulators charged Tolbert with "failure to properly enforce applicable building codes'' and building contractor Michael Daries with "knowingly violating the applicable building codes.''
On Dec. 23, 1998, a second engineer hired by state regulators determined that the architect's plans were unclear or flawed and that the home's gable ends might not withstand hurricane-force winds.
In such a storm, the "structural inadequacies (would) present a significant threat to life and property,'' engineer James Owen Power concluded.
Regency and Daries disagree with the findings.
"Our engineers have said that everything was in compliance'' with the Standard Building Code, said Steve Booth, attorney for Daries and Regency.
Regency Communities, which last year merged with the Ryland Group, has marketed the Aberdeen since 1994; the company would not say how many Aberdeens have been built.
Tolbert, the Hernando County Development director, insists that he and his department did everything they could for Pearl and that both state-hired engineers are wrong to criticize him.
As for the house, it's still not fixed.
Pearl said he's feeling "scared and worried'' -- especially after a Times analysis showed the gable wall in his home has a design capacity of 57 to 65 mph.
"God forbid, if you ever had some sort of wind or storm,'' he said. "I could be laying in my bed and the ceiling could come down!''
Power, the state's expert, listed 11 steps that must be taken to bring the home into compliance.
The agency is negotiating those repairs with the contractor, said the agency's attorney, G.W. Harrell.
Pearl wants his home repaired.
"I don't want to do this,'' he says of his long battle. "I just wanted to be with my friends. They play golf. They go out. They enjoy themselves.
"All this is creating stress on me. I don't need it. I'm not running for any office.
"All I wanted was a house built according to code.''
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