Agreement near on townhouse roof replacement Task force works on plan to pay for plywood roofs crumbling from chemical treatment.

July 11, 1991|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Evening Sun Staff

Thousands of Maryland homeowners whose roofs have been weakened by fire-retardant chemicals could get relief from an effort to create a compensation fund.

A task force has been working seven months on a plan to create a fund to pay for roof replacements.

Chemically treated plywood was widely used on townhouse roofs during the 1980s, and an estimated 250,000 houses nationwide might be affected, said an official with the National Association of Home Builders.

The problem with the chemically treated plywood roofs came to light in 1987, when it became evident that the roofs were losing their structural soundness. Roofs became soft and brittle, causing them to leak and making them hazardous to walk on.

The task force is reviewing the fifth version of the plan and is expected to make a decision by the end of September, said William Young, director of consumer affairs for the association.

If it succeeds, years of costly lawsuits could be avoided, Young said.

The task force consists of more than 70 builders, wood preservers, plywood manufacturers, insurance agents and home-warranty representatives. Under the current version of the plan, each of the parties -- builders, wood treaters, manufacturers, and insurance companies -- would contribute to the fund.

Homeowners also would have to pay a portion of the cost of replacing their roofs. Although no figure has been set, Young said the task force has frequently mentioned $250 as the amount the average homeowner would have to pay.

The cost of a new roof for a typical townhouse is about $2,000 to $2,500, although it can be much more.

A homeowner with a defective roof would make a complaint to the home's builder, or perhaps directly to the administrators of the fund. An inspection would be made to determine whether the owner is entitled to a new roof.

Carl Auvil, vice president of the Maryland Condominium and Home Owners Association, said he didn't like the idea of homeowners having to foot a portion of the bill, but he agreed it might be the simplest an

swer to the problem.

Barbara Adams, a resident of the Windsor Green townhouse development in Greenbelt, said she was pleased that the problem she and her neighbors have been wrestling with for the last two years might at last be resolved.

"This is far better than going to court," she said. "You can invest so much in legal and engineering fees that you wind up spending what it would cost to replace the roof."

Young said the fund could be in place by year's end if all the parties accept the agreement.

"If this agreement happens, the compensation that would be available would be preferable to any other alternative homeowners are likely to have," Young said.

Kenneth Feinberg, a Washington lawyer who is mediating the resolution, said the parties have agreed to the way the program will be conducted and the percentage each must pay to the fund. The problem remaining involves how much is covered by the parties' insurance.

Feinberg said he is optimistic the remaining obstacle can be overcome in the next couple of months.

The program envisioned by the task force might not redress every problem, Young cautioned. Also, if homeowners have already replaced roofs, they might not be able to recover the money they spent.

Although the agreement would not curtail a homeowner's right to sue, Young said, lawsuits would be more costly and time-consuming than paying a portion of the roof-replacement cost.

The agreement is intended to avoid cases such as one in New Jersey where a suit on fire-retardant plywood involves 130 law firms, Young said. "It makes the lawyers rich, but it's not going to get any roofs replaced," he said.

Douglas G. Worrall, a lawyer with the Baltimore law firm of Smith, Somerville & Case, which has counseled builders and developers about the treated plywood roofs, said litigation in the cases is complicated. Homeowners have filed suits against builders and builders have sued suppliers and manufacturers of the chemically treated wood.

"We would be absolutely delighted to participate in this kind of program," he said. "To litigate is to engage in a very wasteful enterprise."

When the problem arose, those involved with the wood each began blaming the other. The homeowners blamed the builders. The builders argued that the wood was accepted by various building codes and blamed the manufacturers and chemical-treatment companies. Many of the chemical-treatment companies in turn blamed homeowners for having inadequate attic ventilation, which they say caused the deterioration.

During the past two years, wood treaters have been using different chemical formulas that have not shown signs of causing wood to deteriorate, Young said.

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