Lawsuits filed over Roseballen paving

Some 25 trees — cherries, maples and birches — were to be planted next to the craftsman-style homes that line the Roseballen housing development in Vashon town.

But the tree-planting project has been put on hold because of a conflict over another critical item at the affordable housing project west of town. According to King County, the road that wends through the small development has to be repaved, so as to meet the county’s exacting standards.

Because of a disagreement about who’s responsible for the botched paving job, however, the road’s not been taken care of six years after its installation. Two lawsuits have been filed. And last week, the county stepped in, demanding the developer, Northwest Housing Development in Tacoma, to come forward in 15 days “to discuss a schedule to complete the required improvements” or face losing its bond, according to a county letter dated Jan. 11.

Meanwhile, Northwest Housing Development is postponing planting the trees, one of the final items on its so-called punch-list, to ensure it has enough money, should it end up paying for a repave.

“We’re holding back everything until we get this done,” said Barry Brodniak, who heads Northwest Housing Development, a nonprofit that helps homeowners construct their own affordable housing and that oversaw the Roseballen project. “There’s a possibility that the road could cost more money. It seems prudent to not spend everything we have until we get this issue resolved.”

The issue is frustrating to some residents, most of whom spent two years or more working long hours every week to build their homes.

Many of them say they’re happy with their small community, an aesthetically pleasing congregation of 19 houses — each with big front porches and painted in warm earth tones — arranged around a common green. The houses were a bargain on Vashon — ranging from $165,000 to $179,000 — with federally supported interest rates as low as 3 percent.

The community, co-developed by Vashon HouseHold and Northwest Housing Development, has been hailed as a model for a new kind of affordable housing project and has garnered headlines in the regional press. The two nonprofits have another such project, Sunflower, under way on Vashon.

But it was an ordeal to complete their homes, many of the homeowners note. And some say this conflict over the road is weighing on them — especially because they’ve been told little about what’s going on between the developer and its various contractors.

“It’s just such a let down. ... We worked so, so hard to get our houses built,” said Lynn Korn, who moved in two years ago.

“I’m not out to accuse or blame anyone. I just want information,” added Suzi Marmorat, another resident. “It would be nice to know the truth and what is going on and who’s responsible for what. ... No one is talking to anybody clearly and honestly, as far as I can see.”

Though several small things have not been completed on Northwest Housing Development’s punch-list, the big issue, all agree, is the road that wends through the development. According to a county inspector, the pavement is too thin in places, the gravel is loose, and the road isn’t solid enough to bear weight over time. It also hasn’t been striped, the county says.

“The road has to be built to county standards, and those standards are about quality and long-time viability,” said Paula Adams, a spokesperson for the county’s Department of Development and Environmental Services.

Until the county determines that the road through Roseballen meets the county’s standards, it won’t take on maintenance of it, she said. If the developer doesn’t step forward, she added, the county will seize the developer’s bond and repave it itself, noting that a letter to that effect was sent to Northwest Housing Development last week.

“The whole system is designed to ensure that communities have quality housing,” she said.

Meanwhile, both the contractor and the sub-contractor are pointing fingers at each other over the state of the road.

Mike Kimmel, owner of Kimmco Inc., was the contractor hired by Northwest Housing Development to take on site prep for the housing project. Kimmel, an Islander, said he and his crews did all the prep work and then brought in a subcontractor, Woodworth & Co. in Tacoma, to lay the asphalt.

The sub-base was ready for the asphalt, Kimmel said; a county inspector signed off on it.

But when Woodworth’s crews appeared with seven trucks full of asphalt in 2004, the foreman complained that the sub-base wasn’t good enough and forced Kimmel to sign a waiver relinquishing the Tacoma firm of responsibility, according to Kimmel.

Kimmel, who’s owned his company on Vashon for 43 years, said he felt pressured to sign the waiver.

“What are you going to do when you have seven trucks with blacktop in them? They were there ready to go when the foreman pulled that waiver out,” he said.

What’s more, he added, the problems the county identified with the paving job have nothing to do with the sub-base.

“They did not do the quality of the work that was called for. They did not put the thickness down that they were supposed to, and they didn’t compact it enough,” he said. “If I had done it myself, I would stand behind my work.”

Jeff Woodworth, president of Woodworth & Co., which has been in business 88 years, disagrees. His foreman asked Kimmel to sign that waiver, he said, because the foreman believed the base conditions weren’t up to par and it wasn’t the right time to lay the asphalt.

“He waived all his rights,” Woodworth said. “He assumed responsibility.”

The job took place in November 2004, Wood-worth added. “And what’s it usually doing in November? It’s cold and rainy. It’s not a good time to pave.”

Last fall, Northwest Housing Development, determined to force an end to the dispute, sued Kimmco. Kimmco, in turn, sued Woodworth.

Kimmel said it’s the first time in his 43-year business history that he’s been sued. Northwest Housing Development, he added, is on his side; the nonprofit developer sued him because only then could Kimmel go after Woodworth, he said.

Brodniak, too, said he believes the problem is likely not with Kimmco but with Woodworth. “We’ve got a good relationship with Mike,” he said.

Kimmel and Brodniak have met several times to discuss the situation, but they’ve been unable to get Woodworth, a large company, to come to the table, they said.

“Obviously, the subcontractor has dug in their heels and they’re not going to perform,” Brodniak said. He added that he hopes the lawsuits will force the issue. “We’re just going to go through the steps until we get this resolved,” he added.

Vashon HouseHold, meanwhile, said it has little to do with the dispute, since at this point, it’s only the underlying landowner. The Vashon-based affordable housing organization launched the project more than a decade ago. But now that the project is complete, Vashon HouseHold’s role is minimal, said Chris Szala, who heads the organization.

“We’ve handed Roseballen over to the homeowners’ association,” Szala added.

But Szala said he believes the homeowners don’t need to worry about the road or the dispute between the contractors. It’s a minor issue, he said. “The road is fine; it has to do with an obscure county regulation.”

What’s more, he added, one way or another, the issue will get resolved.

“Either the county will do the paving to complete it, or Northwest Housing Development will,” Szala said. “I don’t see it as a particularly big deal.”

Some of the homeowners agree, noting that Rosebal-len — despite this bump in the road — remains a wonderful place to live.

“Many of us agree that it’s an issue between Northwest Housing Development and the county, and there’s nothing we need to worry about,” said Lauren Sheard, who moved into her home with her husband Brandon a year ago.

Sheard, who gave birth to her son in her Roseballen home eight months ago, added that the community and the homes are wonderful. “We feel grateful,” she added.

Still, said others, the homeowners need to pay close attention to the situation, since ultimately the road will likely be their responsibility.

“Overall, I love it here,” said Larry Croswhite, a retired engineer who moved into his well-kept home nearly a year ago. “I think Roseballen is a very pretty community.”

But the conflict troubles him, he said. He can live without the promised trees, he added, but he’s anxious about the road’s alleged problems.

“It’s nagging, because I know these things will disappear into history if you don’t keep on it,” he said. “If we don’t get it resolved, we’ll be sorry later.”

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