Metrowest condos rack up $3.5M in fines for construction defects

Article Courtesy of  The Orlando Sentinel

By Paul Brinkmann

Published May 26, 2018

For years now, construction crews and scaffolding have been common around many buildings in The Hamptons at Metrowest, Orlando’s largest condo complex, while the landscape in many areas is bare and dusty.

The Hamptons has struggled to overcome construction mistakes, chiefly rotting wood beams and panels that weren’t properly sealed during the original construction dating to 2000. Water damage also has led to electrical hazards, split ceilings and cracked facades — all of which led to huge city fines.

The sprawling complex of 770 units on 70 acres on Robert Trent Jones Drive in west Orlando has racked up $3.5 million in code enforcement fines, one of the highest totals ever in the city.

But collecting those fines has proven to be difficult so far. The city already forgave about $2.3 million in old fines in 2015, but they’ve grown again to much larger than that, according to the city.

City officials say they are frustrated.

“It’s not acceptable that it takes this long, but I don’t control the finances at that place,” said Mike Rhodes, the city’s deputy director of economic development. “The fines continue to accumulate until the work is done.”

The Hamptons at Metrowest, a sprawling condo complex with 700 units, is still blighted by moldy wood and faulty stucco years after the association there won a $20 million award in a construction defect lawsuit.

The city has to hope that the complex continues to repair the issues. If it doesn’t, solutions are limited unless the city chooses to foreclose on the property, something Rhodes doesn’t foresee happening.

“It would be financially daunting for the city to foreclose on a property of that scale,’’ he said. “That wouldn’t be in the taxpayers’ best interest.”

Built as apartments, the community was one of many in Central Florida converted into condominiums as real estate prices spiked in 2005. But the condo converter went bankrupt, and owners sued when they began finding construction problems.

Board members of the condo association have argued they did their best to address violations, but they also faced $3 million of unpaid association dues during the economic downturn. To raise cash, the association foreclosed on condo owners who were delinquent and rented out those units. It also levied special assessments on the remaining owners.

Living at the Hamptons has been difficult, said resident Howard Fox. One-bedroom values plunged to $30,000 during the recession and have been slow to recover. Security and quality of life are compromised, he said.

He’s engaged in several legal battles with the board, and they’ve sued him, contending he has defamed its members.

Fox said he believes the work being done to fix the problems is shoddy. He says he’s seen workers covering up rotted wood with new siding.

He points to a few examples of split ceilings and rotted beams in buildings that were supposed to have been repaired already.

Around the entrance of the Hamptons, the structures are well-appointed with fresh paint and lush landscaping. And several buildings around Turkey Lake in the rear of the complex are also repaired and painted.

But workers continue to bang and saw on a dozen buildings. Blue tarps cover many roofs. Rusty, tilted air conditioners are a common sight. The stucco facades of many units are spider-webbed with cracks.

Landscaping is non-existent in some areas. One building had an open, broken window with no apparent attempt to board it up or fix it.

“It’s scary that they don’t tell us anything,” Fox said. “Newsletters consist of useless information about recipes and things like that.”

Calls to the board’s leadership were referred to its attorney Scott Newsom, who said Fox is wrong. The work is being done properly and has been inspected regularly, he said. Landscaping has been delayed because of the ongoing construction.

“The community has been largely rebuilt. Most of the exteriors are brand new. In 18 to 24 months, they anticipate finishing up the last stage,” he said. “But there’s a finite amount of financial resources.”

Newsom said the construction problems allowed “a massive amount of water intrusion.” Despite winning a $20 million lawsuit against the contractors, the Hamptons was unable to tackle the scope of the problem, partly because of the economic downturn that began in 2007.

“The association has been open and honest about the issues, the monetary challenge, and how the repairs would be phased in,” he said.