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Sale ends homeowner's long battle with builder

His persistence revealed flaws in gable roof designs. Now he has a new home _ and a different style roof.

Last month, David Pearl packed up his war room.

He moved his computers, his fax machine, his binder, his copier to a 5,600-square-foot house in Lake in the Woods.

Boxed up in his storage room are stacks of research papers, thousands of pages of correspondence and years of anguish and frustration.

He no longer needs that vexing stockpile.

His four-year battle with Regency Communities over the design and construction of his old house in Timber Pines is over.

On Nov. 14, Pasco Model Homes Inc., a company headed by former Regency president John E. Hudson, bought Pearl's Summercrest Lane home for $225,000 _ $60,000 more than Pearl paid in 1996.

Soon after Pearl bought the Regency home, he hired Spring Hill engineer J.C. Russello to check it for flaws. Among other things, Russello said the gable wall wasn't up to code.

Russello's findings were echoed by an engineer for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, who found other serious defects as well. In a hurricane, the home's "structural inadequacies (would) present a significant threat to life and property," the state's engineer said.

Thus began Pearl's pitched and prolonged dispute with Regency, with the contractor who built the house, with the engineer who certified that the home's design met the necessary codes and with Hernando County Development Director Grant Tolbert, who personally inspected the house but found no code violations.

Russello's belief that the gable weakness in Pearl's house was a common one led to a 1999 investigation by the St. Petersburg Times. The newspaper's five-month examination concluded that the vast majority of gable-roof homes across the state likely failed to meet the wind-resistance requirements of the Standard Building Code. The finding was strongly disputed by builders and engineers; it has been in the hands of state regulators ever since.

The newspaper's analysis showed that the gable wall on Pearl's house had a design capacity of 57 to 65 mph. The building code requires a design capacity of 100 mph.

The DBPR, which licenses building officials, claimed Tolbert was negligent in the Pearl case. Tolbert denies any impropriety. An administrative hearing on his actions is scheduled Jan. 17 in Brooksville.

Last month, the Florida Board of Engineers reprimanded Winter Park engineer Kishore Tolia for sealing a defective design.

Hudson, the former Regency president, declined to comment and referred questions to his attorney, Stephen Booth. "I have no comments," Booth told the Times.

Pam Krebs, communications director for the Ryland Group, which bought Regency Communities in 1998, said she did not know what would happen to Pearl's old house because her company had no involvement in the settlement.

"The home in question was something that was sold before we purchased Regency," she said. "Our agreement was, if the home was purchased before our involvement with Regency, it was something they maintained responsibility for."

As for Pearl, he's busy decorating his new home.

"It's a custom-built house," he said. "I have a hip roof. I don't have a gable anymore. It appears to be in good condition. I'm not going to look further than that."

Pearl said he is "very happy" with his settlement with Regency. Before moving to Hernando, Pearl sold his Pinellas County air-conditioning business. His Timber Pines house, meticulously decorated, backed up to a golf course. Pearl, 62, said he expected a peaceful retirement.

"I've been fighting a long time," he said. "I never thought it would take so long and I never thought it would go this far.

"I had to settle with the builder and get my life to go on."