Soiled Hands

Page 4 of 11

But more than twice that number -- builders, lobbyists, and their allies -- spoke in favor of it.

And the second group had much closer connections to the representatives on the committee.

In the two years before the meeting, the lobbyists and builders at the meeting alone had donated $4,681 to committee members.

In the next four years, they'd shell out another $5,563 to those same committee members -- with $2,587 going to the coffers of now State Senator Barbara Leff (R-Paradise Valley), who chaired the meeting.

Those numbers don't include the $49,750 that the builders' lobby gave to the state political parties during that period. Nor do they include the $3,940 that builders have donated since 2000 to John Nelson (R-Glendale), the bill's sponsor.

As for those dozen homeowners who opposed the bill? None of them had donated a buck.

The sole professional lobbyist who opposed the bill, who was there representing a homeowners association, had donated money to various pols, but not to anyone at the meeting, according to records.

"It was like going to a trial where the jury had already made up its mind," says Mike Schofield, a Gilbert resident and HADD member who attended the meeting.

"It was just worthless for us to even be there."

The problems in Melinda Westcott's house began with the soil. Specifically, they began with expansive soils, which swell when they get wet.

The swelling can cause terrible damage to the slab of concrete and house on top of it. As the soil expands, it pushes its way up, cracking the concrete. And then, as the concrete settles and shifts, the walls crack.

Sometimes, as in the case of Melinda Westcott's home, the foundation is tough enough to stay together -- but the pressure forces it to curl up at the edges.

That can be just as bad: The walls, lifted by the curling, jar the roof. Cracks still develop. Leaks, too, are common, which can lead to mold.

Expansive soils are common in some of the hottest spots for new construction (see "Cracked Houses," March 16). Construction defect lawyers have filed class action suits in Mesa, Gilbert, Surprise, and, of course, Anthem, which has been rocked by soil problems. (To see a complete map of areas affected by bad soils, go to http://www.az.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/soils/shrinkswell.html.)

Indeed, according to the man whose company poured most of the foundations in Anthem, Jim Bebout, Del Webb was fully aware of bad soil there years before building Westcott's house.

Bebout, who owns Bebout Concrete, detailed the timeline in a letter to Del Webb dated last November.

By 2001, Bebout wrote, his staff had noticed that "inordinate repair requests" were coming from Anthem. The repairs were focused on "cracking flatwork and slabs, beyond what is considered normal, and necessitating significant repairs or replacement."

In his letter, Bebout alleged that Del Webb's engineers recommended using thicker slabs to prevent problems in the future.

But, he wrote, Del Webb wouldn't listen.

"Webb rejected proposals to increase the thickness of the flatwork, citing cost concerns," Bebout wrote.

According to Bebout, it wasn't until lawsuits were filed that Del Webb finally began implementing better-designed slabs.

Jacque Petroulakis, a Del Webb spokeswoman, notes that Bebout's letter only came to light because of litigation -- suggesting that the circumstances may make his claims suspect.

After Del Webb was sued in an expansive soils case in Sun City Grand, the builder turned around and sued its subcontractors, including Bebout. It was at that time that Bebout filed the letter in court, along with an affidavit detailing similar concerns.

"We dispute these allegations," Petroulakis wrote in an e-mail to New Times. "We work with professional geotechnical and construction engineers in designing our homes. The structural integrity of our homes is beyond question and is well documented."

But regardless of what happened with Westcott's foundation, several things are clear: Del Webb knew it had a problem in Anthem.

And rather than address Westcott's complaints, Del Webb chose to downplay them.

This is what happened:

Since Westcott had only been living in the house for a few months when she noticed the cracking, her two-year warranty was still in effect.

And so on January 14, 2005, five months after she'd moved in, Del Webb sent two consultants to St. Exupery Drive to take a look.

Ten days later, Anthem's general manager, Diane Brennan, sent Westcott a letter, summarizing the consultants' findings.

There was some soil movement, Brennan wrote, but "long term movement evident in your home should be minimal."

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske