It Stinks! Part Two
Marion County residents not alone in complaints about being deceived by homebuilder D.R. Horton.
View from sewage plant located in Marion Landing into the neighborhood of JB Ranch. DR Horton built homes close to the plant and sold them to trusting out of town home buyers. [Dave Miller, Special to the Gazette] 2022.
D.R. Horton, the developer who a number of Marion County homeowners say duped them into buying new homes and lots adjacent to a 1990’s-era sewage treatment plant, is facing similar complaints and lawsuits from Louisiana to Largo.
A lawsuit by a Louisiana family against Horton, which markets itself as “America’s Homebuilder,’’ is expected to grow into a class-action suit after the family’s lawyers claimed hundreds of homeowners in the state and nationwide may have been harmed by Horton’s alleged deceptive sales practices, according to a December report in The Advocate of Baton Rouge.
“D.R. Horton has a history of failing to disclose material information to prospective buyers and using unethical sales tactics,’’ Lance Unglesby, the family’s lead attorney, said in a statement to The Advocate.
“D.R. Horton is trying to conceal the truth about what it is telling prospective homeowners to try and sell houses.”
The company’s legal issues extend to the island of Kauai, Hawaii, where dozens of homeowners claim defectively designed and constructed Horton homes have led to issues with black slime. Some say the slime is responsible for ongoing health problems, including ear and skin infections, sores and yeast infections, according to a report in The Real Deal, a real estate industry website.
Closer to home, a homeowners’ association in Largo is suing Horton for numerous construction defects, according to the Local Today website. In August, the HOA filed a complaint detailing numerous construction and site deficiencies including roof, window, wall and floor issues, as well as site work, which negatively impact the property’s drainage performance.
Representatives from D.R. Horton, the nation’s largest homebuilder, have declined requests for comment from the Gazette about the issues raised by JB Ranch residents. In the Louisiana lawsuit, Horton’s attorneys said the matter belongs in arbitration rather than in federal court. Arbitration is an alternative dispute resolution process outside the courts that many corporations prefer, partly because it brings the matter outside the purview of the public eye.
All of these cases echo complaints raised by several residents of JB Ranch in southwest Marion County, who, as out-of-state buyers, contracted with Horton for home-and-lot packages in 2021. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, they made their purchases sight-unseen, relying on photos and videos provided by Horton sales staff.
What the images didn’t show were pictures of an aging sewage treatment plant next to the lots they were buying. There was no mention of the smell and noise the plant generates all day and night.
You can’t smell a photo or video
For Carol and William Lovas; Karen Humphrey and her fiancé, Hunter Matassa; and Roger and Suzy Stam, Horton’s new homes in JB Ranch looked perfect on the company’s website.
The out-of-state buyers contracted for their new homes in the summer of 2021 when the combination of pandemic restrictions and frenzied real estate market led many people to buy house and land packages sight-unseen, relying instead on virtual tours and assurances from real estate agents and developers.
Photos and videos they were shown during the construction phase showed thick vegetation in their backyards, which blocked the view of the plant. Horton subsequently removed virtually all of the greenery and replaced it with a fence.
On the other side of a vinyl fence are the homes the three couples had built on SW 88th Loop at the northernmost section of JB Ranch, east of SW 60th Avenue and bordered by SW 92nd Lane.
The plant belongs to the adjacent development, Marion Landing, where there are no houses built nearby. Instead, it’s used as a drainage retention area and for RV and boat storage.
Immediately after moving in, the owners were slapped in the face by the smells and sounds coming from the sewage treatment plant, whose location they say was never disclosed to them.
The buyers immediately began seeking relief from Horton and the Marion Landing Community Association, then from government entities including the Marion County commission, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and even the Seniors Vs. Crime agency, part of the state Attorney General’s office.
At each step, they have been rebuffed.
Since the Gazette first reported on their plight in November, the residents—while acknowledging they should have done a better job of investigating their new community before moving in—continue to insist the plant poses health risks to them and other citizens, a threat that county and state officials should take seriously.
Suzy Stam feels angry and betrayed by Horton, Marion County and the state. “It’s heartbreaking that the (commissioners) blew us off,” she said.
Carol Lovas said with regret, “We feel like idiots. How could we have been so stupid? All of us feel this way.”
Marion County commissioners’ response
Lovas was a city council member when she lived in Ohio and has a sense of how local government agencies should work.
“We feel the (Marion) commissioners dropped the ball,” she said. “The commissioners literally allowed these homes to be built here when the wastewater treatment plant was this close. And they gave them (D.R. Horton) the building permits.”
She spoke at a commission meeting in June 2022 and listed the residents’ major concerns, including seeing stool from their backyards, photos of which she showed commissioners.
“It’s an outdoor chute,” she pointed out. “And the stool—you can see it—actually faces toward the back of our houses. And it builds up, then the water starts to come down and it splashes all down the side of this plant. How this is in compliance I will never know.”
In addition, she said, “We are listening to constant running noise. It does not stop. And it’s very loud. It shuts off maybe 10-15 minutes at a time, then it starts revving up…and gets louder and louder and louder. “
Lovas finished with an entreaty to the board. “We’re hoping that you can help us somehow and maybe make that wastewater treatment plant (be) enclosed. It’s old, it needs help, there’s no doubt about it, and it’s really affecting our lives.”
The commissioners agreed to send a letter to the DEP to request an inspection of the plant but then-chair Carl Zalak said, “If it’s really unsound or unsafe, then the department that licenses them (the DEP) would be in charge of that site. I don’t even know if they can enforce someone to enclose something like that.”
In response, Lovas said, “I have no idea how stool blurting out could be healthy, could be safe for us. It can’t be. It can’t be. This is an issue that I believe that you do have to look out for the health and safety of your constituents. This is a health and safety issue at this point. We have no idea what we’re breathing in. And how did they get building permits to build houses so close to a wastewater treatment plant? And who approved that?“
The neighbors left the meeting without getting any satisfactory answers.
“(Marion County) gave them building permits for these houses. They are responsible, really,’’ Lovas said later. “I realize Horton is bringing in a lot of money on building houses in Florida, but we’re residents of Florida, too, and you’re supposed to represent us. And they are not doing that.”
Florida Department of Environmental Protection re-inspected the plant
In July of 2022, Roger and Suzy Stam and other JB Ranch residents began contacting the DEP to complain about the noise and smells from the plant.
At first, Stam said, DEP staff were helpful. The department sent them documents that showed permitted volumes, and the current permit that expires in January 2025. The DEP determined the paperwork was in order and the plant was “in compliance.”
But Stam said as she and others began regularly contacting the agency whenever the noise or smell was unbearable, then-DEP staffer Katrina Kasemir began to respond with repetitive, canned emails.
The Marion Landing permit document specifies that the permittee self-monitors its plant with requirements to “monitor and report in accordance with previously effective permit requirements, if any.” That document does not specify whether reporting is required monthly, quarterly or annually.
Multiple email responses from the DEP to various residents stated, “DEP staff observed no odors leaving the boundary of the permitted facility during these investigations and the facility was found to be operating in compliance. The odor concerns reported today have been assigned to a staff member to investigate.”
The OCULUS website that the state uses to store public documents lists six “inspection related” compliance evaluation inspections in late 2022. On Sept. 16, a letter of potential noncompliance was sent to the Marion Landing plant owner citing “Effluent Quality- The facility violated a permit or enforcement narrative effluent limit.”
According to the report, no sampling was conducted during the inspection and the deficiency noted was for 0.099 million gallons per day exceeded the 0.095 allowed per day; the June 2022 reported gallon was 104%.
Additionally, a note of “out of compliance” for the plant was listed in effluent quality in June 2022 with a fecal coliform result of 2420 FC colonies, which “exceeded the maximum limit of 800 FC” for any one sample. The July and August reports showed “effluent has returned to compliance.”
Despite the paperwork from the state, Stam still feels the residents’ complaints are being ignored. She said that in a phone call, Kasemir “just sorta laughed at me, and said you just need to move.”
Stam has eye and throat issues that she believes are brought about by the chemicals from the plant wafting through the air and into her HVAC system. “My eyes burn,’’ she said. “We can’t stay outside due to the chemicals. We have no idea what we’re breathing in.”
D.R. Horton has offered no assistance to residents. A letter to the Stams from Cammy Kennedy, of risk management and legal counsel for D.R. Horton, stated that Horton has no control over the plant, and there are no construction issues to be addressed.
“D.R. Horton respectfully declines to take any further action and considers this matter closed,” the letter states.
While the residents on SW 88th Loop continue to seek relief from the government and Horton, the developer is pushing ahead with more homes in the development. JB Ranch recently received approval to continue its development for 270 acres on the north and south sides of SW 95th St Road for 1081 townhome and single-family units with Type C and modified C, and Type E and modified E buffers on all sides.
Horton continues to build in various parts of Marion County including Deer Path, Brookhaven, Ocala Preserve, and Ocala Crossings South.
Buffer requirements unclear
When they begin a project, developers are required to submit and get approval on a Master Plan that shows the layout of the proposed community. These plans often are revised to accommodate requests from neighboring residents, the BOCC, the developer and typically include requirements for amenities, lot locations and buffering.
The original planned unit development, or PUD, for JB Ranch Phase 1, was approved by the county in 2007, long before digital records were common. Gazette staff asked for current approved master plans for this section of JB Ranch and the county provided the 2007 plat document, which has no buffer requirements listed. That plat does show a drainage retention area (DRA) west of the Humphrey, Lovas and Stam homes.
Why wasn’t that DRA placed near the sewage plant and RV and boat storage for Marion Landing to give the JB Ranch neighborhood some space between them and the plant? No one at the county has been willing to answer.
Additionally, master plans have very specific buffer requirements that are categorized by the number and type of vegetation the county wants. For example, according to county code, a robust buffer, termed a Modified Type C buffer, is comprised of “a 25-foot wide landscape strip without a buffer wall. The buffer shall contain at least two shade trees, and three accent/ornamental trees for every 100 lineal feet or fractional part thereof. Shrubs and
groundcovers, excluding turfgrass, shall comprise at least 50 percent of the required buffer and form a layered landscape screen with a minimum height of six feet achieved within three years.”
It’s unclear if this section of JB Ranch or D. R. Horton were ever given buffer requirements. Marion County planning staff to date has not provided access to an approved master plan for the development that would show what, if any, any buffer requirements were included. Chris Rison, the senior planner for Marion County, has not responded to the Gazette’s requests for comment through the county Public Relations team.
Having trees that would grow up over the fence and additional shrubbery would block the view of the unattractive concrete and metal machinery, help absorb the noise and dissipate some of the smell from the plant.
The county’s Phase 1 document for the neighborhood specifies in Note 22: “It is the responsibility of the individual lot owner to maintain their portion of the landscape easement show on Lots 28 through 51. This easement is subject to the criteria set forth in the approved PUD for this development.”
If the lot owners are responsible for landscaping, residents asked why Horton cleared the vegetation between their homes and the sewage plant and left it bare in early summer of 2022. Currently, the area is only grass along the vinyl fence in place on the north side of SW 88th Loop residents’ backyards.
While the homeowners on SW 88th Loop are facing the brunt of the problem with the sewage treatment plant, they are not the only ones in JB Ranch feeling the impact.
Maureen Emerick, who rented in the area before buying a lot in JB Ranch far away from the sewage plant, said, “I used to play pickleball in the evenings and I could smell plant all the way at the clubhouse where the court is.”
Emerick recalls a conversation with a Horton salesperson when the lots near the plant were being cleared for construction.
“I inquired whether they actually were going to build on those lots,’’ she said. “I assumed they were not buildable lots due to sewage plant’’ and the odors and noise the plant produces. “The agent told me, ‘Yes, why not?’” she said.