Homes lack key amenity: water

Simmons is a Times staff writer.

The first sign of trouble came almost immediately after Kurt and Michelle Dahlin moved into Lancaster’s new Westview Estates in March 2007.

The water slowed to a trickle midway through showering. The toilet tank took two hours to refill. The family often was forced to bathe at 4 a.m. -- before the neighbors awoke and the water flow became a dribble. Some days, there was no water at all.

Things only got worse as more homeowners moved into the gated community on the outskirts of Lancaster. Complaints to New Jersey-based developer K. Hovnanian Homes, Los Angeles County water officials and Lancaster city representatives were met with excuses and finger-pointing, residents said in interviews.


In September 2007, the developer halted construction after building only 35 of the 425 homes originally planned. Of those, just 23 were sold.

A fight immediately ensued over who was to blame for stopping the development.

The families who remain in Westview are angry. Residents said they thought they were buying into a luxury community in a coveted residential enclave. What they got was a suburban ghost town, with vacant homes and windblown tumbleweeds sweeping across empty lots.

The Dahlins were among the first families to move in, purchasing a 2,600-foot home for $388,000.

“We bought into the vision, hook, line and sinker, but we don’t ever see that coming to fruition,” said Kurt Dahlin, 38, a project manager for an Internet security software company. His wife, Michelle, who saw this as her dream home, is “devastated,” she said.

The Dahlins and other Westview homeowners said they would like to sell but can’t because of the real estate slump. Even worse, who would want to buy a home knowing there were problems with the water system?

“Our position is that these homes should never have been sold,” said Jamie Duarte, an attorney representing the Westview homeowners in suing K. Hovnanian Homes for fraud, negligence and breach of contract. The lawsuit alleges the developer knew of the water deficiencies but failed to disclose them.

L.A. County, its Waterworks District 40 and the city of Lancaster are among other defendants named in the suit, which alleges that they failed to ensure that the developer installed a permanent water utility system and that it was fully functioning before issuing certificates of occupancy.

Responding in writing to queries, Joseph M. Manisco, vice president and chief legal officer of K. Hovnanian Companies of California Inc., said the allegations against the developer were unfounded. He said L.A. County’s water district had committed to provide water service to 133 homes that his company intended to construct in the first phase of the project.

So the developer built 35 homes and installed a water distribution system to serve them, Manisco said. But after 23 of the homes were sold and occupancy permits granted, “the Water District abruptly, and without warning, withdrew its previous water service commitment, claiming that it had become unable to provide sufficient water pressure to the community,” he wrote.

Even though the water pressure problem was resolved, according to Manisco, his company has been denied occupancy permits for the remaining 12 homes since September 2007.

In written remarks, Michael Moore, senior deputy county counsel for the L.A. County counsel’s office, said the waterworks agency had informed the developer that before additional water meters could be issued, it would have to finish building “a groundwater well and facilities related to its operation.”

County officials said the developer stopped construction of the well in March 2008.

Norm Hickling, Antelope Valley field deputy for Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, said his office initiated an investigation once it became aware of the problems.

When the water system failed to pass Fire Department tests, the county installed a backup generator, boosters and pressure sensors, said Duarte, the homeowners’ attorney.

A small pump station also was erected about a quarter-mile away. Water pressure is stronger, but it’s still inadequate, residents say. “It’s hard to come home,” said Michelle Dahlin. “Am I going to be able to wash dishes, flush my toilets . . . ?”

Many homeowners blame the county for approving what they think is a substandard water system. But they also think the developer concealed the water problems.

Excuses ran the gamut. Charles Dunn IV and his wife, Kelly, high-school teachers who moved into Westview in April 2007, were told that the water system was being tested. Miguel Mejia, a law enforcement official, and his family were told that the problem was ongoing construction. Ryan Idleman, a contractor who questioned why the spray function on the kitchen faucet was so weak during a walk-through of his new home, was assured that the water tank serving the community was still being filled up.

Failure to disclose the water deficiencies, particularly to those homeowners who bought properties long after the problems were known, is what irks Kathy Turner.

Turner bought a home on Mora Court, where today only five of 14 properties are occupied. At one stage, she and her two teenage daughters were forced to use bottled water to take sponge baths.

“It’s been really disheartening,” Turner said. “I’ve never felt settled because this has been hanging over us all the time.”

Darren Parker thought he had bought “a piece of heaven in the desert,” when he paid $450,000 for a 3,200-square-foot home on Mora Court. He spent an additional $130,000 on upgrades, including a 40-foot sun deck.

Today, a litter of puppies plays on the dry and barren patches of Parker’s sprawling backyard. The extra sprinklers he installed could do little to save the lawn without adequate water. At one point, the family was using bottled water to flush the toilets.

“It’s a day-to-day challenge,” Parker said. “We’re victims. No one wants to admit responsibility. They’re trying to make us look like we’re just looking for compensation. All we want is water.”

On West Dale, where vacant model homes stand, a sign beckons: “A home that is right for you, right this way.”

But these days only thieves seem to make the trip. An outdoor barbecue has been stolen from one model home, and the copper wiring snatched from the air-conditioning units of others. Only holes remain where nine fire hydrants once stood on undeveloped lots before vandals ripped them out.

Frustration prompted some homeowners to let their properties slip into foreclosure.

In July, Idleman and his wife, Christina, walked away from the four-bedroom, three-bathroom home they bought a year earlier.

“I’m a contractor,” he said. “The economy is slowing down. I knew they weren’t going to fix the water. I knew the tract wasn’t going to get done. And I was paying $3,000 a month. . . I wasn’t going to stay out here in this dud development.”

Idleman paid nearly $400,000 for the house next door to the Parkers’. Duarte said the bank was asking $209,000 but would be lucky if it could sell the property at all.

Westview residents want L.A. County and Lancaster to revoke the certificates of occupancy issued to K. Hovnanian. This would compel the developer to refund homeowners’ money, their attorney said.

“We consider ourselves prisoners in our homes,” Kurt Dahlin said. “We can’t sell [them]. We can’t give them away.”