Homeowners: Building department negligent

Couple says multimillion-dollar reconstruction is needed to make a new home safe and inhabitable

By Renee Batti

Almanac News Editor

When Kimberly Sweidy named the home she and her husband Raymie Stata were building in west Atherton Casa de Buena Esperanza -- House of Good Hope -- she by no means had rose-colored glasses on.

It was spring 2006. The house had been in the planning and construction process for about five years, it was nowhere near completion, and Ms. Sweidy was becoming increasingly convinced that the process had gone badly awry.

"In Spanish, esperar means to hope and to wait," she said in a recent interview when asked about the name.

The melding of the concepts of hope and waiting, she added, "embraces the cultural value of patience," and in mid-2006, she knew that she, her husband, and their two young daughters were going to have to call upon a deep store of patience -- not to mention fortitude -- to get them through the ordeal the home-construction project had turned into.

Now in the midst of a legal battle with her building contractor, Ms. Sweidy is also taking on the town of Atherton's building department for passing inspections and ultimately signing off on a multimillion-dollar house that the couple is having to pour millions more into to make structurally sound and repair the many problems they've discovered since moving into it in the summer of 2007.

Many if not most of those problems would have been flagged and prevented or fixed if department staff had not "failed to perform in a reasonable or competent manner," Ms. Sweidy said.

Ms. Sweidy and Mr. Stata have filed a claim against Atherton, protesting new building permit fees that the town is charging them to do the retrofitting and repair work necessary to make the house safe, including stabilization of the main house's foundation.

Ms. Sweidy is also calling for the firing of Building Official Mike Wasmann, who, she said, did a number of the inspections on the house.

"The need for these building permit fees are the direct result and consequence of the negligence, gross negligence, fraud and breach of duty ... of the (town's) building department, including its plan check, oversight and inspections," Ms. Sweidy, an attorney, wrote in a June 29 notice to town officials and council members.

"Further, the town employee with the most culpability, Mr. Mike Wasmann, is now the building official for (the town), in charge of oversight of the entire department," she wrote.

Outraged that the "dream home" her family had waited for years to inhabit is plagued by major structural deficiencies, inadequate plumbing and electrical work, and a host of other serious problems that need correcting, Ms. Sweidy told The Almanac, "They turned my dream home into a nightmare."

Is building official qualified?

Once the family had moved into the approximately 8,000-square-foot main house three years ago, Ms. Sweidy and an assistant began an investigation to try to figure out, among other things, how the house could have passed muster with the town.

One of her discoveries, made about two months ago: Mr. Wasmann's certification as a building inspector had lapsed in June 2007, five months after he had been promoted from senior building inspector to building official. And, she found, he does not hold building official certification.

In calling for Mr. Wasmann's firing, Ms. Sweidy wrote in a letter to City Attorney Wynne Furth that the building official "is a danger to the residents of ... Atherton" and a liability to the town.

After the town learned of Mr. Wasmann's failure to renew his certification, he took "the necessary steps" to reinstate it, and completed the process in June, Ms. Furth said in a June 29 letter to Ms. Sweidy.

Mr. Wasmann could not be reached for comment, but Eileen Wilkerson, the town's assistant city manager, said that Mr. Wasmann meets all qualifications listed in the town's job description for the building department's top post.

Atherton does not require certification for its building official, even though the California Building Code says that such an employee "should be certified as a building official through a recognized certification program."

Saying that Atherton has some of the most complex and elaborately designed houses in the country, Ms. Sweidy blasted the town for not requiring more of the person who heads the department that provides oversight for home construction projects. "This is a job that requires a high level of skills, knowledge and competence," she said angrily, adding that it's not clear whether Mr. Wasmann completed an associate's degree from the College of San Mateo, which he attended from 1969 to 1971.

Under reconstruction

Situated on two acres near the creek, on Broadacres Road, the angular, multicolored stucco house and its accessory structures were designed to accommodate the couple's commitment to philanthropy, Ms. Sweidy said.

The main house has a multipurpose room, with a slightly raised stage, that can seat 85 guests for philanthropic events, she said. Three such gatherings were held there before the major reconstruction of the structures began, including an event for donors to Packard children's hospital and the associated Ronald McDonald House.

Such events are now on hold while the structures and grounds undergo major construction work. Recently, a construction crew began what is likely to be a six-month project to replace the 8- to 9-foot piers under the main house's foundation with 25- to 30-foot piers that engineers have deemed necessary to stabilize the house.

Ms. Sweidy said the foundation work was done improperly because it was based on information in a geotechnical study that was performed by a person who, she learned much later, was a civil engineer, not a geotechnical engineer. The study "ignored the local geological data well-known in the industry since the 1960s, including the existence of the Whiskey Hill Formation and the Alluvial Formation, with their chaotic mix of claystone and sandstone," Ms. Sweidy wrote in her complaint against the town.

Rick Colindres, the on-site supervisor overseeing the work, described the problem with the existing piers now supporting the house: "It's like trying to hold up a cantaloupe with toothpicks."

Ms. Sweidy said problems with the soils report and structural design plans based on it should have been caught and corrected by the building department during the plan review process. Instead, she said, the structural strength of the house is about 40 percent of what's required, according to engineers who have examined the house since the contractor, Fulwiler James Inc., walked off the site in spring 2007.

The entire retrofitting and reconstruction project is likely to take about two years, Ms. Sweidy said. In addition to the foundation-stabilization project, work is needed to shore up walls that have improper supports, and repairs are needed to a range of features from plumbing and electrical wiring, to tile and cabinetry, to the roof and floors.

Already reconstructed, at great cost, is the dissipation field, installed to control flooding on the property. Ms. Sweidy said she and her husband, perplexed by soil saturation, standing water, and flooding that was occurring near the dissipation field, found out five years after the field was constructed that the sump pump necessary to its operation had been omitted. The sump pump, she said, was required in the permit issued by the town, but a town inspector signed off without verifying its existence.

The project, Ms. Sweidy said, "is now millions of dollars over budget, and over what (the house) is worth." And, she added, the cost will be much higher before all the repairs are done.

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