A.J. residents seek damages for sinkholes - East Valley Tribune: News

A.J. residents seek damages for sinkholes

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Posted: Friday, March 14, 2008 5:51 am | Updated: 10:26 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

After a year's worth of complaints about giant sinkholes opening up, cracks forming in walls and Arizona rooms slowly falling away from their houses, residents of an Apache Junction manufactured home community say a recent letter from the park's owner promising an investigation isn't enough.

Drainage problems plague manufactured homes

Now, the Desert Harbor Association of Homeowners, formed because of such problems, has hired an attorney to handle their case. The residents are demanding refunds and compensation for damages they say total at least $6 million.

"It was just too little too late," said Clyde Preston, who formed the nearly 70-member group about two months ago to deal with the park's Florida-based owner, American Land Lease.

The irate residents of the community just south of U.S. 60 on Ironwood Drive, hope their demand letter will fetch results, and they say a lawsuit will follow if it does not.

In a letter of response March 6, American Land Lease's Arizona regional operations manager Alicia Owens said the company has received an initial report from a geotechnical engineering firm and is engaging a civil engineering firm to develop a new drainage plan for a portion of the community.

But the Desert Harbor association is no longer interested in waiting to see what the company does.

The group hired its own engineering firm to inspect some of the homes. The firm's report suggested that the sinkholes and other features are indicative of construction defects.

The report further recommended surface regrading and soil compaction, which would require moving the homes.

American Land Lease, which manages several properties in Apache Junction, Florida and Alabama, did not return calls seeking comment.

Preston said Apache Junction is likely to be named in the lawsuit, too, despite repeated claims by City Attorney Joel Stern that the city is not responsible.

"There is no legal requirement that the city should have conducted tests, mandated environmental studies, or verified soil quality or suitability for placement of manufactured homes in the park," Stern wrote in a letter to Preston.

But Preston said that still doesn't excuse the city, which issued 92 building permits to American Land Lease from 2000 to the present, according to city records.

"I'm no legal expert, but they must have had to check soil inspection records before handing (the company) a permit," Preston said.

That argument is based on an intergovernmental agreement the city entered into with Arizona's Office of Manufactured Housing to conduct inspections. According to the state manufactured housing office, Apache Junction also must check soil preparation to comply with the agreement. 

But Stern said the city is not required to do any compaction tests or check for soil problems.

"The only thing the city has to do is (determine) whether the utilities are hooked up correctly or check the skirting around the mobile home," he said.

Not all residents want to be bought out, Preston said, and many don't want to move.

But there may not be an alternative.

"You can't blame them for not wanting to move, especially the older residents, but there's no way you can fix this without moving the homes," Preston said.

The group, which is treating its problem as a product defect, sent a letter to the Arizona Attorney General's Office seeking an investigation into possible consumer fraud. The attorney general has forwarded the complaint to the Arizona Department of Real Estate for further review.

"We are no longer interested in spin jobs or Band-Aids; We want our money back," Preston said. "This problem is not going away."

Sharon McCall, a 2 1/2-year resident, said the cracks have worsened over time.

"Oh Lord, it's terrible," McCall said, describing a recent incident in which she heard a loud noise and later noticed the entertainment center in her den now leans backward toward the wall. A row of kitchen cabinets in McCall's home is starting to pull away from another wall.

"I don't know how things can be fixed until our structural issues are fixed," she said. "If I have to pack up, I might as well move, period."

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