By John Schaffner
Kimanne Allen, a real estate broker, bought her condominium at Arborgate in Buckhead 18 months ago. She has never been able to move in and has since had to buy another home where she and her son live.
Stacey Elgin, a freelance TV anchor and reporter, moved back to Atlanta a year and a half ago planning to live again in the Arborgate condominium she bought in 2001. She’s thankful she got married and now can live with her husband at his home.
Karen O’Brien, a technology consultant in the media and entertainment industry, has lived in her condominium at Arborgate since 1998. On May 30, she and her neighbor, Andrea Nardello, were ordered by the city of Atlanta to find someplace else to live until repairs have been made to their Arborgate condominiums.
These are four professional women who own condominiums in Buckhead, but own homes where they cannot enjoy life through no fault of their own.
These four women—neighbors in building B-120 at Arborgate Condominiums—have for 18 months been trying to get their condominium owners association and management company to deal with problems in their homes that have resulted in cracked and separated walls, sagging floors, severely weakened foundations, aging and ruptured water pipes, the threat of ruptured gas pipes, and finally resulting in being told they must vacate their homes for their safety.
Now, city of Atlanta Chief Inspector Jerry Martin—who the four women refer to as “our hero”—has gotten deeply involved. The city has taken the Arborgate homeowners association to court and the association has been ordered to fix a gas line situation Martin described as a “powder keg” and also fix the sagging foundation in building B-120.
It might be said that the origin of the problem was in the summer of 2005, when the condo association’s board began realizing that the water bills were running much higher than the amount that had been budgeted based on the previous year’s bills. In fact, by year’s end, the bills had run $26,879 or 43 percent over budget. That suggested a leak.
Although a number of residents report hearing running water near drainage areas on the property, water does not appear on the surface until late in the year and the situation is virtually ignored.
The real problems started in January of 2006, just after Allen bought Unit B-7 in building 120 at the Arborgate. She planned to do some renovations to the unit and live there with her son.
Allen was told by the contractor the renovations would be done in about two weeks, but she was never able to move in and the unit remains in shambles, with sagging floors, cracked sheetrock on the walls and debris sitting in the middle of the living room.
On January 9, 2006, the upstairs sink in Elgin’s Unit B-9 was broken when the renter had a seizure and passed out while the water remained running for five hours. Most of the water was contained to Elgin’s unit, some spread to O’Brien’s Unit B-8 with smaller amounts seeping into Allen’s Unit B-7 and Nardello’s Unit B-10.
Five days later, on January 14, residents of B-120 notice a significant drop in water pressure and hear the sound of water rushing through their walls.
They immediately reported these problems to Arborgate’s property manager, Sean Rucker, who called in a plumbing company to check it out. As a plumbing company begins digging in front of units 7 and 8, groundwater rushes out from underneath the foundation of building 120. One of the main water lines that runs parallel to the building had been ruptured.
During the ensuing week, residents of B-120 note significant changes in their units as cracks develop and rapidly enlarge in their walls, a result of settling of the building. That was in late January, 2006. Today, 18 months later, there still is no final resolution to the problem.
When Arborgate was built in the 1960s, the water pipes and gas lines for the units were run under the concrete floor, which was poured on top of them.
As far back at 2000, an engineering survey of the properties informed the Arborgate homeowners association board that because of the age of the development (about 40 years old), those pipes were at the end of their life and needed to be replaced. That study was used to get a $400,000 loan for those projects. But, according to O’Brien the money from that loan was put into cosmetic changes around the property rather than infrastructure.
But now the condo association is being forced to deal with those problems—at least B-120.
When the city of Atlanta took the Arborgate homeowners association to court on May 20, the judge ordered the association to re-route the gas lines to remedy what was labeled a potentially very dangerous situation—a break in the lines could possibly lead to an explosion.
The judge also required the association to come back to the court by June 25 with a plan for fixing the sagging foundation for the building, which engineers report is being caused by “voids” that have developed under the concrete foundation flooring .
Elgin told the Reporter, “We have been ignored until we ended up going to the city, hiring a lawyer and doing numerous engineering reports out of our own pockets.”
Attempts to discuss the issues by phone with members of the association board or property management have been unsuccessful to date.
But just how did the city get involved?
The gas line in O’Brien’s condo was punctured when an engineer from an insurance company came there to do tests following the incident in Elgin’s condo and the ruptured water main in front of Units 7 and 8 in early 2006. The management company hired a plumber to fix the gas pipe, but it was not fixed to city code. The plumber never got a permit from the city and then fixed it with compression fittings, which are not for gas lines, and then put concrete over that.
In August of 2006, an attorney representing the B-120 condo owners received a letter from the condo association’s attorney stating that the association felt it had proper engineering evaluations of the building that indicated “no immediate emergency or imminent threat of building collapse.” It also stated that any further engineering studies would have to be done at the expense of the B-120 condo owners. O’Brien and the other owners decided to do just that—get an extensive engineering study of the situation with the foundation and have plumbers give a cost estimate on re-routing the gas lines.
When O’Brien showed the plumbers, who she had called for the estimates, photos of what had been done in her unit by the previous plumbers, she was told the work had not been done to city code. “He said, ‘I can tell you they never got a permit, because the city never would have approved that’,” O’Brien said her plumber stated. “That’s dangerous and, if you don’t report this to the city, we are obligated to do so’,” he told her.
“That is when we went to the city, because we decided we are not going to be holding the bag on this one,” O’Brien said. “If they had taken care of it in the first place, the city never would have gotten involved.”
After the city gets involved and the association gets slapped with a code violation, O’Brien explains, “They don’t respond and the city tells them they are about to take the association to court. However, the city gave the association an opportunity to come to the table and see if they can work through the problem.” The meeting did not take place.
O’Brien said the four women did everything the association board asked them to do. We got engineers as they requested and they got engineers and they all came back with the same conclusion: that the issue was due to the underground water that had leaked from the pipes.”
She said the four owners paid for a full engineering report with the scientific data and gave it to the board in November of 2006. They never heard a word from the board. “Furthermore, they didn’t even let us see one of the reports, which we as association members were paying for,” she added.
O’Brien said, “Our engineer did load-bearing (foundation) testing, going down 13 feet. They could tell where the voids were and what the costs would be. He wrote them a letter before he even issued a report in which he said this building is in danger of blowing up. As long as you have voids under the foundation, gravity is going to pull it down. So, it is not stable. It is going to continue to move. Therefore, those gas lines need to be addressed.”
“That was sent to the board in October. Our next communication back from the board or their attorney was in January after we gave everybody in this complex a copy of our engineering report and that letter.”
That was one year after the problem was first identified.
The association finally agreed to restructure the gas lines to make it suitable and the plumbers were on site doing that on June 8. While they were doing the gas lines, the city said the women could not stay in their units because there were no utilities. So, they had to find lodging elsewhere at their own expense.
The homeowners got two pieces of information placed on their doors in the same day. A notice that they had to vacate their properties for the duration of time it took to fix the gas lines and an invitation to an Arborgate pool party and barbecue.
On June 11, the city was to come out and inspect to make sure the gas lines were properly done. However, the inspector could not do that because the association failed to get a permit for the work before it was performed. The inspector did check the gas line work on June 13 and failed it, according to O’Brien, because the plumbers failed to put cutoff valves where the lines attach to the appliances.
According to the four owners, the association has also agreed to pay to get the foundation fixed, “because the city has said this building is close to being condemned.” That will be the next step. “They have to go in and shoot some compound below the foundation and jack it up,” Elgin explained. She said that will cost about $120,000.
Kimanne and Stacey’s units were unoccupied when the problems began. O’Brien and Andrea Nardello have lived with the problem in and around their homes. But now, they can’t even live there with the problems. “When they do the foundation work, we will have to move everything we own out of the condos,” O’Brien said.
“This is going in my resume of nightmares,” Allen said. “I ended up buying somewhere else where I can live. I have never lived here in a year and a half…since the day I bought it.”
The concrete floors in her unit show several areas where it was cored out to test the foundation. “What they do is core the hole and then suck the piece of cement out,” she said. “They could not get the first core out because it had sunk down into the hole. It had fallen into the surface of the earth. I just remember them saying ‘There is a real problem here’.”
“This is prime property,” Elgin said. “Somebody needs to come in here and buy this entire place. All I want to do is wash my hands of it I am making mortgage payments and the condo association fee is $269 a month.” She added, “Kimanne has stopped paying her condo fees and the association is threatening to take her to court.”
Elgin said she paid $155,000 for her condo in 2001. “I would feel lucky to get that for it now.”