Angered homeowners seek retribution, get frustration
Residents of Stablewood Farms on the West Side say no one ever told them that their new homes were built on top of an old sewage treatment plant.Now some homeowners are asking their builder to buy back their homes â and wondering why the city of San Antonio encouraged development there in the first place. ...Neighbors only learned about the former wastewater treatment plant last year after they started comparing problems and decided to do research on the land. âIt seems like a cluster, that a lot of the children are having heath issues,â
Angered homeowners seek retribution, get frustration
By Jennifer Hiller
Stablewood Farms on the West Side say no one ever told them that their
new homes were built on top of an old sewage treatment plant.
some homeowners are asking their builder to buy back their homes â and
wondering why the city of San Antonio encouraged development there in
the first place.
Enraged home owners Charles White, right, and Helen Tiseth, center, along with others, bring up issues in a meeting with city officials and a developer, concerning their Stablewood Farms Subdivision homes being built on an old wastewater treatment plant. They claim their homes are shifting and sinking, and family members are having health issues. Photo: BOB OWEN, San Antonio Express-News / Â© 2012 San Antonio Express-news
The city used a special taxing district in 20
01 to spur the development of Stablewood Farms, near the intersection of Highway 90 and Loop 410, and the site of the former Dwyer Road Plant, which closed in the early 1990s.
John Dugan, the city's planning director, said the location near the intersection of major highways made the area a high redevelopment priority for the city.
âIn terms of development, it's a prime location for commercial, for residential, for multifamily,â Dugan said. The city created a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, which sets aside the taxes on any increase in property values to finance public improvements such as streets and sidewalks, in that area.
Homeowner Helen Tiseth said she was shocked that the city rezoned the property to single-family residential.
âHow could you do that knowing there were 18 lagoons of sewage?â she asked. âI don't understand the concept of putting families on any kind of contaminated soil.â
Their issues include rashes, asthma and other respiratory problems as well as gas smells and structural problems such as shifting foundations.
Many of them have been in their homes for nearly a decade, but Gizelle Luevamo said the problems weren't evident immediately. Neighbors only learned about the former wastewater treatment plant last year after they started comparing problems and decided to do research on the land. âIt seems like a cluster, that a lot of the children are having heath issues,â she said.
For months a group of about 20 of these frustrated homeowners in Stablewood Farms have been protesting, writing letters to ask their builder D.R. Horton to repurchase their homes and complaining to the city.
On Thursday, they got this for their efforts: A meeting in an echo-filled gym attended by some city officials, a representative from the state's environmental agency and the barely-audible developer calling in from Dallas by speaker phone.
Gizelle Vuevano, a home owner in Stablewood Farms Subdivision, voices her opinion during a meeting with city officials and a developer concerning the homes in the subdivision being built on an old wastewater treatment plant, and the homeowners were not informed of it.âIt's very condescending,â one resident shouted at the end of the meeting.
Stablewood Farms Subdivision
homeowner Esmerelda Perez stands in her front yard
where the yard is
sinking next to the driveway.She and other area homeowners are
finding out their homes were built on an old wastewater treatment
Home owners in Stablewood Farms Subdivision are upset at
finding out their homes were built on an old wastewater
treatment plant. This is a crack in the exterior brick wall
While frustrating to the homeowners, the results of their buyback campaign are pretty typical in Texas, where homeowners in contentious disputes with their builders face a long uphill battle with few recourse options. The state has no agency that regulates home building, so homeowner-builder disputes end up in court â or more likely in binding arbitration. Arbitration agreements have become common across all consumer law and are standard in almost all new-home sales contracts. Such agreements keep consumer disputes out of the courts and away from the public eye.
And while homeowners may simply want out of a house and ask the builder for a buyback, it's not the usual ending.
âThey do occur, but it is uncommon,â said Ned MuÃ±oz, vice president of regulatory affairs and general counsel for the Texas Association of Builders. âIt's extremely rare that a defect is at the level that it's reached the price of a house.â
The last time that a large buyout happened in San Antonio was in the Rivermist and Hills of Rivermist neighborhoods on the Northwest Side. There, a rock-clad retaining wall cracked and dozens of homes were evacuated. The photos and video were such a spectacle that the news and images went national.
Pulte eventually repurchased homes after the city suspended certificates of occupancy for the duration of the wall reconstruction.
Attorney Bryan Woods said that some builders now have a corporate policy against buybacks.
He said large neighborhood protests can help bring attention, but also can be risky. Homeowners basically have two years from the time they knew about a problem, or should have known about it, to file a lawsuit.
âThese large builders like D.R. Horton and Pulte are pretty sophisticated about waiting out the press. Eventually the press is going to get bored and move on. The problem for these homeowners is the statute of limitations,â he said. âThe waiting game is, in my opinion, very dangerous.â
At Stablewood Farms, builder D.R. Horton purchased the lots from a developer more than a decade after the plant closed, the company said by email. The treatment plant closed under the state's oversight, and last year following complaints by some residents, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency investigated.
âBased on the investigation, both the TCEQ and the EPA advised D.R. Horton last year that they had closed their files on this matter with no recommendations or suggestions for any changes or remediation,â the builder said.
The Dallas-based developer told residents Thursday that the company would be willing to share environmental reports, but had scraped the land and put as much as 4 feet of fill dirt on the site.
Dugan told residents that from the city's perspective, the plant was closed following local, state and federal guidelines and that there is no contamination.
âIt was inspected. It was passed,â Dugan said. Any issues now are âbetween you and the home builder,â he told homeowners.
He said he would have public health officials visit with homeowners about their health concerns.
Homeowner Priscilla White said she would not have purchased if she had known the site's history. Now if she tries to sell, she will have to tell prospective buyers about any issues or problems with the house, including the environmental concerns.
âThe builders don't have to disclose that,â she said. âWe have to disclose that.â
Stablewood Farms residents aren't the only homeowners in the San Antonio area currently publicly pressuring a builder.
In the Fairhaven neighborhood in Schertz, about 45 owners have asked the builder to repurchase homes because of issues such as cracked foundations and structural problems. Builder Pulte Homes has said that buybacks are not on the table, and that fewer than 60 homes have reported a problem to the builder.
Recently, some homeowners have been allowing the company to make repairs, though.
âWe are moving forward,â said resident Diana Taylor. âWe're moving on.â
Other homeowners remain at loggerheads with Pulte, and have started protests against the city of Schertz as well.
âThey're sending a message loud and clear that anyone can come into the city of Schertz and build shoddy homes. They don't care,â said homeowner Faye Touve. âIt's hard to know if all of our efforts are in vain.â