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New Storm Brewing at Belle View

Homeowners react to legal wranglings.

Hurricane Isabel is gone, but there's another cloud hanging over Belle View and it doesn't have a silver lining. Lawsuits and mechanic's liens for alleged nonpayment of services has thrown the condominium board of directors into a court battle with contractors.

Earlier this year, owners of Belle View Condominium units received letters from the law firm Albo & Oblon, L.L.P.

It read: "Please be on notice that per the attached, our client DryTech, Inc. has caused a mechanics lien to be filed against your property for unpaid labor and materials provided to the common areas of the condominium premises as a result of the flooding and related damage caused by Hurricane Isabel. Your specific proportional share of the unpaid debt (not including applicable court costs) that would need to be paid to our client in order to have the lien against your property released is included as an attachment to the mechanics lien."

Belle View board members were quick to react and sent out a letter to all the owners. That letter read: "DryTech is a subcontractor of Purofirst. Purofirst has filed a lawsuit claiming it is due over $1million for being at Belle View for less than four days immediately after Hurricane Isabel. The Association is fighting that claim in court.

"By law, unless the court decides after trial that Belle View owes money to Purofirst, the companies that were hired by Purofirst, including DryTech, cannot get any money from Belle View or its owners.

"Mechanics liens and mailed notices about them do not require that owners pay anything. In fact, companies that file mechanics liens must begin a lawsuit within six months of the filing or lose their lien. If DryTech does file suit, the Board of Directors will defend against it on behalf of the Belle View owners. It is not expected that these liens will have any impact on owners' credit ratings."

THE BOARD LETTER continued, saying, "You should be aware that two other Purofirst subcontractors have also filed mechanics liens. The purpose of the liens is to be sure that, if it turns out that Belle View owes money to Purofirst, Belle View pays the subcontractors before paying Purofirst. Unless the subcontractors file lawsuits on time and there is a court determination, the mechanics liens do not entitle the subcontractors to do anything to collect what they claim they are owed.

"DryTech, however, seems to be trying to lull Belle View owners into making payments they do not have to make. However, the mechanics liens may cause concern to a limited number of owners. Those owners who are selling or refinancing their units may encounter some inconvenience because of the liens. So, the Board has instructed our lawyers to ask the Fairfax Circuit Court to remove the mechanics' liens because the liens do not meet the requirements of law. We expect hearings on whether the liens should be removed to be scheduled in February and March and we expect to win.

"On the Purofirst case, on Friday, Jan. 23, the Fairfax Circuit Court ruled that the initial pleading filed by Purofirst was not sufficient and sustained Belle View's motion objecting to the pleading. Purofirst was given 14 days to file a new pleading to try to correct the defects. When that happens, Belle View will be free to challenge the new pleadings again. Once this initial skirmishing is over, as much of Purofirst's case as may remain will move forward. We expect that a trial will be held on the matter late this year or early next year. We will update you on this case and on the results of the hearings on the mechanics liens when they are available."

RAY DIAZ, ATTORNEY for the condominium association, elaborated on the case, saying that Purofirst has claimed that it is owed $1.87 million dollars for work that they did after Hurricane Isabel.

Most of this amount is in dispute, and while they were on the premises for four days, some question how much work Purofirst actually did. Both Diaz and Leslie Violette, treasurer for the association, said that when Purofirst started working, the board repeatedly asked them for a statement of work and an estimate.

"If I told them once, I told them 25 times that unless they defined the scope of their work, I didn't want them to do any work," said Violette.

When they didn't receive an estimate, they asked them to leave and hired another company. While some work was done, it is not believed to have cost anywhere near the claimed amount. Diaz said that the two parties are very far apart and estimates that the litigation will take 10-15 months.

Declan C. Leonard is the attorney handling the case and said, "Our client and other contractors were called in on an emergency basis after Hurricane Isabel to help out the residents of Belle View. Our client mobilized a huge number of workers and brought in enormous amounts of expensive machinery nationwide, for which it has yet to be paid. Our client has fully complied with all of the legal requirements for this type of claim, including notice to the residents as the collective owners of the common areas of the premises.

"We have reached out to the other side to try to resolve this claim, without success. At this point, our client is left with little alternative than to continue pursuing its claim for the work it performed but has yet to be paid."

WHILE THE LAWSUIT is not of immediate concern to owners, the mechanic's liens that have been placed by one of Purofirst's sub-contractors, DryTech, and two of their sub-sub-contractors, Topps and Basic Industries, may be. These liens are not an issue for those owners who are staying put in their units for awhile. For homeowners who are trying to sell or refinance, they may have a problem because of the liens.

"These people have really been hammered, this adds a layer of problems," said Diaz, who is telling homeowners that they have three options in this case: pay the amount (approximately $550) and get a release for their unit; place a deposit with the court and transfer the lien; or work with the lender and purchaser to set aside money in escrow. Of the three options, Diaz recommends the last option.

However, Nancy Tompkins, a realtor with Caldwell, Banker & Pardoe, doesn't believe that any of those actions are necessary. She has sellers who are going to settlement who have not had to deal with the liens at all.

"We are comfortable and confident that this is not an issue," she said. "Belle View is as popular and hot as ever. We get a tremendous number of calls. It [the hurricane] hasn't affected property values; if anything, they've increased about $10,000."