Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel
J. Huriash and Paul Owers
January 21, 2011
PARKLAND — John Willis was angry when he learned the company that built his house – the home he wanted to raise his two young boys in – used tainted Chinese drywall that he said made his family sick.
He was outraged when internal documents presented in lawsuits allegedly showed the builder, WCI Communities Inc., knew the drywall was defective and still allowed families to buy and live there. An estimated 100 homes in Parkland are believed to contain Chinese drywall.
|But Willis said he was horrified when he learned WCI wants to come back – right across the canal – and build 196 houses in several new subdivisions in the Heron Bay development that WCI started in the 1990s.
"They've never done anything to make reparations for their mistake at all," Willis said. "They may have discharged their legal duties in bankruptcy, but they did not discharge their moral duties.''
WCI went before the city's Planning & Zoning board Thursday night seeking approval for the entry features to its proposed new subdivisions. That first step is needed before the builder can begin construction.
But the planning board decided to send a message by voting to tell the company it wasn't welcome in the city.
On Monday, WCI attorney Richard Coker said that vote was a mistake.
Espinal and his daughters Emily Espinal, 9, and Camila Espinal, 6, are
shown Jan. 14, 2011, in front of the Parkland home he has to sell due to
Chinese drywall problems. Residents who said their lives were ruined by
Chinese drywall were upset after learning that WCI, the builder of their
homes, wanted to build more in their neighborhood.
He said the entry feature improvements in the common areas benefit everybody and "should be considered on their own merits. They comply with all the requirements of the codes and it's in everyone's best interest to complete these projects and move on.
"I don't think there's anyone not sympathetic and empathetic - not only in Parkland but throughout Broward County and Florida who have Chinese drywall problems - but that is not the issue before the city commission and that's not something that can be considered and that's already been dealt with in bankruptcy court," Coker said.
A representative for the city attorney's office warned board members before the vote that they could only focus on the site plan application and not consider WCI's involvement with Chinese drywall.
But the board, which is strictly advisory, voted 4-3 to make a recommendation to the city to turn down WCI.
"Corporate responsibility is something we should all be concerned with," board member Mario Mangone said. "They [WCI] didn't do the right thing."
Coker said he is appealing his case to the city commission, which has the final say. A date for the decision has not yet been set.
Parkland city commissioners appear divided.
Because WCI's Chinese drywall debts were discharged in bankruptcy, "we are unable to legally hold WCI accountable," Commissioner Jared Moskowitz said. "That being said, WCI has failed in many other areas to be a responsible developer in the city of Parkland."
Vice Mayor Dave Rosenof said he won't be influenced by the Chinese drywall issue.
"I've got to separate the applicant from the application," he said. "Our duty is to uphold the ordinances of the city."
Mayor Michael Udine also said he wants to hear WCI out.
"I have to see the application," he said, "but I tend to side with the residents when they have these kind of issues."
Of the homes believed to contain Chinese drywall, some owners have fixed them on their own and moved back. Others abandoned the properties. Willis said most residents, himself included, unloaded their homes through short sales.
The homeowners say their drywall, imported during the housing boom of 2000 to 2005, caused foul odors, corroded metals and caused respiratory problems and other ailments.
But testing by the U.S. government never established a link between the drywall and health concerns.
Most WCI homeowners in Parkland joined a nationwide lawsuit in Louisiana. Homeowners couldn't pursue individual claims against WCI directly because the company had filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2008.
A trust was created for the benefit of homeowners to pursue claims, and settlement negotiations continue.
Joseph Espinal – whose home built with Chinese drywall is now up for a short sale - pleaded with the board to reject WCI's application.
"My family was living in a house that was toxic," said Espinal who has moved into a new townhouse elsewhere in Parkland. "WCI has destroyed the lives of … families in this community. I lost my life savings because of WCI."
Laurence Litow, a bankruptcy lawyer and chairman of the planning board, voted against denying WCI's site plan. He said the board didn't have the right to reject the application solely on the basis of Chinese drywall.
"If we could take it into account, it would be a unanimous denial," Litow said. "But we have to do our job, as distasteful as it may be."
But Willis, also a lawyer, told board members that letters from WCI executives indicate they knew about the defective drywall and covered it up anyway.
Willis cited two recent court opinions affirming that governmental bodies can show discretion and turn away applicants if they come before the boards "with unclean hands."
The luxury builder, which helped develop Coral Springs and Parkland, sold the Parkland Golf & Country Club to Toll Brothers last year in a cash-and-debt deal totaling $53 million. The transaction included 25 unsold homes that have Chinese drywall.
In 1998, Bonita Springs-based WCI bought nearly 15,000 acres, mostly in northern Palm Beach County, from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The deal gave WCI even more clout across Florida, but the company suffered amid the housing downturn and filed for bankruptcy.
At the time, WCI had 25 housing developments statewide, including the Resort at Singer Island in Riviera Beach and Heron Preserve in Coral Springs.
DREAM LASTED EXACTLY 100 DAYS