Forced out by fire, kept out by bureaucracy

Lakelands families displaced by May blaze are told work will start soon

Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2006

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Amy Greaser stands in front of her Lakelands condo, which was condemned after a May fire.

Six Gaithersburg families displaced in a fire caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette last May are still waiting to return to their homes.

Rebuilding work has not started four months later and the families, who say they can’t get their questions answered, are frustrated.

‘‘I feel like I’m being victimized again,” said Amy Greaser, owner of a condominium damaged by smoke and water. ‘‘No one has given us a time frame yet, and I find that completely unacceptable four months later.”

The roaring blaze that spread through the Cross Green I complex in the Lakelands community in the early morning hours of May 6 required the demolition of two condo units. Four others were condemned. Officials estimated the damage at $2.25 million.

Glenn Loveland, property manager for Abaris Realty, which oversees the Cross Green community, said last week that the reconstruction process on the two-over-two condo buildings is starting, but a timeline for work hasn’t been determined.

The situation — which has forced several families to rent apartments or buy new homes — has taken longer than expected to resolve, Loveland and city workers say.

They blame the delay on original building plans, which were not immediately given to authorities. Those plans were required to apply for new building permits.

Loveland said the complex’s original architect, Lessard Group Inc., did not hand over building plans for nearly three months after the fire.

In late July, they agreed to submit them, he said.

‘‘We couldn’t apply for a permit, we couldn’t get the reconstruction rolling, until we had those plans,” Loveland said.

Lessard Group, a Vienna, Va., firm, did not return calls. The company and Ryland Homes were involved in the original construction of the condos in the 300 block of Cross Green Street about five years ago.

Loveland said a new architect and building company have been hired for the rebuilding.

Marya Jones, spokeswoman for Ryland Homes, said the company will not reconstruct the water and smoke damaged condos because other companies have expertise in those areas.

She also said Abaris Realty should have had copies of original building plans.

Frustrated homeowners who spoke out about the situation at a recent City Council meeting asked officials for help in getting answers about the fate of their damaged homes.

Wes Burnette, the city’s permits and code director, explained last week that Gaithersburg workers were not permitted to provide copies of the building plans to any source other than original builder, Ryland Homes.

Jones said Ryland Homes worked with Lessard Group to submit the plans to the property managers.

Now that the building plans have resurfaced, Loveland says reconstruction is in the works.

The new architect, Barry Miller, met with city workers two weeks ago to discuss rebuilding and updating the condominiums to adhere to new city codes, Burnette and Loveland said.

Loveland could not say when the displaced families may be able to move back, but he did say that the builder estimates it will take three months to rebuild once construction starts.

Burnette said he plans to accelerate permits — once the builder applies for them — in order to speed up the operation. Because the plans are almost exact to the original buildings, permits that normally took a few weeks to process can go through in a day, he said.

‘‘I think everyone wants to get this thing rolling,” Burnette said.

Especially homeowners like Greaser who, instead of shelling out money for rent, bought a new Gaithersburg home with her husband. She settles on that single family home this week, she said, while still paying the condominium’s mortgage.

‘‘I would be happy if I could just see them actually starting construction,” she said. ‘‘After the fire, we were told we had one hour to get everything we had out. Now it’s four months later, and our place hasn’t been touched.”

Danielle Dolan is also feeling the pinch. She’s expecting a baby and, for now, is living in a one-bedroom apartment with her husband.

‘‘I know we’re alive and we’re all fine,” she told the City Council at a recent meeting. ‘‘But we want answers and we want help.”

A cigarette sparked the 4 a.m. blaze, after someone put out the burning butt in mulch-filled potted plant on a porch, Burnette said.

The fire climbed up the exterior vinyl siding to the roof before residents noticed. There were no injuries.

County fire estimated about $1.5 million in damage due to a structural collapse, and $750,000 worth of ruined contents.