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Two indicted for improper asbestos removal at St. Petersburg's Urban Style Flats

Urban Style Flats, which has studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments ranging from $710 to $1,360, gets mixed reviews on websites from tenants, most of them young singles and families.
Published Apr. 29, 2015

Five years ago, developer Philip J. Farley III bought an aging public housing complex near downtown St. Petersburg and turned it into hip apartments for millennials called Urban Style Flats.

The transformation came at a high cost, a federal grand jury says.

According to a newly unsealed indictment, Farley and a supervisor, Aurelijius Baltusis, oversaw a renovation of the complex in which untrained, unprotected workers illegally removed thousands of square feet of dangerous asbestos. Among examples cited in the criminal indictment:

• The two men told workers to remove kitchen appliances contaminated with asbestos-containing debris, take them outside and wash them down, thereby letting the contaminated debris soak into the ground.

• When a bathroom ceiling collapsed, Baltusis directed a worker to vacuum up the contaminated debris and dispose of it with general construction materials, a violation of federal regulations.

• Baltusis threatened to not pay workers who tried to follow an asbestos consultant's advice in the proper way to remove and dispose of contaminated materials.

• Despite warnings from inspectors of the Pinellas County Air Quality Division, Farley and others disposed of asbestos-contaminated studs "without wetting, sealing or labeling the debris or sending it to a proper disposal site."

The indictment also accuses Farley and Baltusis of lying to county inspectors and failing to notify them, as required, when certain asbestos-removal work was about to be done.

Farley, 50, and Baltusis, 36, could not be reached for comment. Both were arrested Tuesday and pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to defraud, a felony, and violating federal procedures.

Each of the seven counts in the indictment carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

Asbestos, once commonly used as a fire retardant in ceilings and siding, is known to cause cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. Federal laws set strict requirements for its removal and disposal, which can cost thousands of dollars even in modest-sized homes.

Urban Style Flats, at 300 10th St. S, just east of Tropicana Field, was built in the 1970s as the Graham Park and Rogall Congregate, home to elderly and disabled residents of downtown St. Petersburg.

In 2010, as part of an effort to "avoid the concentration of poverty," the St. Petersburg Housing Authority sold the 480-unit complex to Farley's company for $6.8 million and said the proceeds would be used to develop affordable housing in more scattered locations.

Meanwhile, with a re-energized downtown starting to attract more young people, the revamped and renamed complex would offer affordable apartments to students, teachers, nurses and first responders like police and firefighters.

Renovations began in late 2010. County officials said Wednesday that about 120,000 square feet of asbestos had been illegally removed before they received a complaint and checked it out.

"We were not notified of the project (previously),'' said Chris Brodeur, senior environmental specialist. "It's a big county, and we don't have a lot of manpower to cover the whole county."

Farley was ordered to begin an "abatement" to properly remove the remaining asbestos, a process that took about six months. Under a settlement reached with the county in 2013, he paid $175,000 in fines.

Since the abatement, there have apparently been no air-quality issues at the complex.

Urban Style Flats has notified the county of subsequent asbestos removal, and the complex itself "is in compliance with our regulations as far as what we look at," said Sherrill Culliver, environmental program coordinator for the county's air-quality division.

Urban Style Flats, which has studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments ranging from $710 to $1,360, gets mixed reviews on websites from tenants, most of them young singles and families. Some complain about parking problems during baseball season and say they have safety concerns in an area still roamed by transients.

But Courtney Waldon, who moved in six months ago with her husband and child, said, "It's not bad. We wanted to be downtown, and the rents are reasonable."

Was she concerned to hear about previous asbestos problems?

"Yeah, that's really weird."

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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