Arvida letter tells of possible code violations
Homeowners have filed suit claiming problems with mold 

By Steve Patterson 
Monday, June 23, 2003 
Article Courtesy of The Florida Times Union

Facing lawsuits over construction quality, one of Florida's most famous developers is telling some customers it may not have followed state building codes. 

Arvida, the creator of dozens of planned communities and resorts, has written to new home-buyers in a Jacksonville subdivision that its window installation and use of stucco "may differ in some ways" from what Florida law requires. 

An Arvida executive said the company began writing to new customers in March to ensure buyers would be satisfied. 

"We wanted to inform customers. ... The fact that we sent that letter demonstrates how responsible we are," said John Baric, a vice president and the company's general counsel. 

Baric wouldn't say whether Arvida's new construction meets building codes, saying instead that the firm builds high-quality homes. The company's letter doesn't explain how its practices might differ from state codes, and says Arvida homes "meet or exceed the prevailing building practices in the area." 

But the notice has made some earlier customers uneasy. 

"Why don't they fix the problem instead of sending out letters explaining what they're doing?" said Richard Gordon, who bought a home last year in James Island, a development off Gate Parkway where homes typically cost $250,000 to $300,000. 

Gordon said his house seems fine, but this month he hired a home examiner to evaluate the property before a one-year warranty expired. 

Owners of six James Island homes have sued Arvida, claiming their houses were full of mold because moisture seeped through improperly installed windows and too-thin coats of exterior stucco. They want a judge to authorize a class-action suit affecting hundreds of their neighbors. 

Any evidence of code violations could have broader consequences for the construction industry. 

At James Island, Arvida employed a relatively new Florida law to hire a private, state-licensed firm to inspect homes as they are built, relieving Arvida from most oversight by the city's Building Inspection Division. 

"It won't serve them well if they screwed up, because everyone is scrutinizing them pretty closely" because of the letters they sent, said Robert McCormick, executive director of the Building Officials Association of Florida. "I would not like to be the test [case]." 

Inspectors who approved the James Island homes believed they met state building codes, said Carl Coger, a manager with the inspection firm Arvida employs, Bissell Architects. He said he couldn't speculate about what differences Arvida's letter referred to. 

Coger said his company performs a series of inspections mandated by the code, but that the examinations don't touch every detail of how a home is built. He said, for example, that inspectors examining wood-frame homes with stucco exteriors will inspect the lathing the stucco is applied to, but they don't measure the stucco's thickness. Coger said inspectors also examine window installation. 

Coger said his company works for about 30 builders in Duval County, performing the same inspections as counterparts employed by the city. Because those examinations are done at fixed points in a home's construction, a builder could violate state code and still produce a home that passes inspection, he said. 

The city's inspections chief, Tom Goldsbury, said he hoped Bissell would look into the Arvida letter's implications, but said his agency had no jurisdiction beyond performing quality-assurance checks of private inspectors' work. 

Baric said he didn't know how many customers Arvida contacted, or whether letters were sent to any customers in developments outside Jacksonville. 

Arvida writes to customers approaching the closing date on their homes. The letter invites customers to hire their own construction consultant, at the customers' expense and within two weeks of receiving the notice. The company also offers to cancel customers' purchase contracts and return their deposits. 

"If you decide to proceed with the closing, we will assume that the home has been built to your satisfaction," the letter says. Baric said most customers reacted well to the letter, and few if any canceled contracts. 

Despite its limited oversight, permitting files maintained by Jacksonville's Building Inspection Division may have confused the public record on James Island. 

At least 27 times since late 2001, computerized agency records showing that James Island homes passed building-code inspections were appended with notes reading "windows don't meet requirements." 

Those records could be read as reflecting concerns about code-compliance, but the original, hand-written reports filed by Bissell employees say nothing about windows. 

Goldsbury said Friday that the notations on the city's reports were the accidental result of an agency employee cutting and pasting an entry from an old inspection into new records. It was unknown why the notation was created in the first place, or where it was first used. Goldsbury said the fact that the notation appeared on records regarding a builder facing lawsuits over window installation was an unfortunate coincidence.