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Same developer, similar complaints

At the same time developer Richard Geiger was building the now-infamous Nature's Watch townhouses in East Lake, he also was putting up a 24-unit townhouse complex a few miles away called Westchester Shores.

Geiger used the same building contractor to pull the building permits and the same engineer to design both projects.

Now, 11 years after it was finished, Westchester Shores is showing signs of water damage that is eerily similar to the problems at Nature's Watch, where repairs have run into the millions.

Water stains on the stucco walls hint at the possibility of major damage at Westchester Shores. A city inspection found damage in every unit. What's more, one engineering report suggests owners stay off their outdoor balconies.

It is too early to tell if the deterioration in Westchester Shores will rival Nature's Watch, which has been described by some construction experts as among the worst they have ever seen.

But early indications from two experts who assessed damage in the townhomes in the Countryside area are not encouraging.

"The results were devastating," Westchester Shores Homeowners Association president Margaret Martin wrote in October, seeking a city grant to help pay for repairs. "It was determined that a health and safety issue existed in all the units."

Geiger did not return calls for comment.

In September, Clearwater building officials issued violations to all 24 townhomes in Westchester Shores, where units have sold in the $200,000 range. The violations cited deteriorated wood as the root cause of structural problems that must be fixed. The city also is requiring that deteriorated wood on balconies, as well as rotten siding, be replaced.

"There wasn't a single unit that didn't have some kind of damage," said Rick Rosa, a building inspector for the city.

The full extent of the problems won't be known until workers peel away the stucco. They also will examine the structural integrity of the balconies and the wing walls that support them.

The city has not formally condemned the balconies, but a preliminary engineering report recommends people not use them.

Water damage to wing walls was one of the more serious problems at Nature's Watch. Experts said the walls had never been capped to keep out water.

How much that all might cost remains a guess. So far, residents have spent $5,000 each for a preliminary review of the problems by an architectural firm with forensic construction experience and a structural engineer, Martin said.

In her letter to the city, Martin said the community must secure a $2-million loan to correct the problems. That would come to more than $83,000 per homeowner. Martin said last week that figure was only a guess used to try to get the city officials' attention.

"There is no way to project (the dollar amount of damage)," she said, until after the bids come back and walls are opened to examine the underlying structure.

But she discourages early comparisons to Nature's Walk.

"We're not like the community to the north," she said. "We have tried not to make comparisons, even though we know there are some comparisons to be done. I am not going to be an alarmist."

Nor is she pointing a finger at who is responsible for the damage. In her letter to the city, however, she said "it was discovered that serious infrastructure problems existed that appeared to be the result of either the initial design or construction of the units."

Geiger, 64, was the president of Westchester Lakes Development Corp., which dissolved in 1994, a year after Westchester Shores was built. Geiger also dissolved the company which developed Nature's Watch after it was built.

The building contractor who pulled the city permits to build Westchester Shores was Timothy Giddens, 54, of Bama Construction. State investigators last year revoked Giddens' general contractor license after he admitted in an affidavit that Geiger paid him to pull the building permits for Nature's Watch even though he had no role in supervising the construction. The state's attempts to pursue criminal prosecution against Geiger ended when the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office determined the four-year statute of limitations had passed.

Westchester Shores also was designed by engineer Ralph Hansen, 94, who designed Nature's Watch.

Geiger, Giddens and Hansen have been sued by the Nature's Watch homeowners association, which alleges they conspired to build substandard housing. The suit is continuing.

"You don't build homes and they have to be totally reconstructed in 10 years," said Basil Jabiri, who moved into Westchester Shores three months ago.

Geiger has said that at Nature's Watch improper building maintenance caused the water damage.

Attorney Steven Mezer, who represents the Westchester Shores Homeowners Association and was involved in the Nature's Watch litigation, cautioned against assuming the two projects have similar problems with similar causes.

"On its face, you could jump to that conclusion," Mezer said. "But we don't want to do that."

Martin said residents of Westchester Shores have learned from Nature's Watch's woes.

For example, Westchester residents are determined to stick together and share the cost of repairs. At Nature's Watch, bitter disputes between residents drove legal expenses higher and spawned a complex court battle.

Last week, the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled Nature's Watch residents should not have been forced to contribute to a repair fund. At one point, Nature's Watch homeowners faced assessments totaling $92,000 each.

Martin believes resident unity could help Westchester Shores secure a long-term loan that would allow residents to pay off expensive repairs over time.

"We have all worked hard for our homes," Martin said. "That's why we have all stayed as focused as we have."