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Fort Myers drywall victim sick of wait

Builder wants standard in place before acting

Jul. 25, 2009
Dr. Keith Baker shows where metal bathroom accessories have corroded as a result of exposure to Chinese drywall fumes in the family's south Fort Myers home. The builder, Aubuchon Homes, is waiting for a national solution. / Valerie Roche/

WHAT'S NEXT: Drywall meeting

What: Meeting called by Aranda homeowners on the effects of Chinese drywall and how to address the problem.

When: 6 to 8 p.m. Monday.

Where: Cape Coral Library meeting room, 921 SW 39th Terrace.

Cost: Free.

Open to: The public.

For more information: Call 233-2168.


1:10 A.M. — The owner of a $1.4 million Fort Myers home with defective Chinese drywall wants to know why his builder, Aubuchon Homes, won't fix it.

Dr. Keith Baker, who moved his family out of the home Dec. 17, said State Rep. Gary Aubuchon, who is also president of Aubuchon Homes, did pay four months rent on an alternate residence and some expenses.

But Aubuchon then cut off further assistance, Baker said.

"He said to me, 'I'd love to help you, Keith, but I have no money,'" Baker said.

Not so, Aubuchon said in an interview late this week. He said he told Baker, "In order for me to be able to help you, we will need the contributions of those responsible."

The standoff highlights the struggle of homeowners left in the lurch while manufacturers, suppliers, distributors and home builders struggle to untangle the defective drywall chain of blame.

The issue is black and white, Baker said. "You put the stuff in there, you take it out. Why do we have to go through the court system? Why do we have to point fingers everywhere?"

The issue is far from black and white, said Aubuchon, a small custom builder based in Cape Coral. The company has built five homes containing the drywall, he said.

The reason he is not taking action to fix the house is that he isn't sure ripping the drywall out and replacing it is the final remedy.

Investigators are considering whether the drywall can cross-contaminate other elements of the home, such as plywood, insulation and other building materials, he said.

Aubuchon won't take action until federal agencies set standards for inspection and remediation.

"Until that happens, for the homeowners' sake, for the builders' sake and everyone caught in the liability loop, no one can move forward with a clear conscience and know the problem has been solved once and for all," he said.

Setting standards could take years, Baker said. He wants relief now.

He knows Aubuchon didn't put the drywall in his home intentionally. But he still thinks the builder bears responsibility.

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Baker e-mailed a letter to every state legislator, Gov. Charlie Crist and the state attorney general's office, detailing his problems with the builder.

"If Mr. Aubuchon cannot take responsibility for his own actions in the community then HOW can he be trusted as a Government Official with taxpayers' money when he is making decisions in Tallahassee?"

Aubuchon is represented by the law firm Boyle & Gentile of Fort Myers. Attorney Geoffrey Gentile Sr. says Baker is trying to injure Aubuchon, personally and politically.

Aubuchon said Baker is also hurting his business. He fired off his own response to state legislators.

"While regrettable in tone, the letter underscores the frustration of those dealing with the situation," he wrote, "it is neither fair nor right that so many Americans are in this situation.

"I have spoken to hundreds of people about Chinese drywall and work daily for a solution."

He encouraged those affected by Chinese drywall "to focus their efforts on a national solution."

That doesn't help homeowners now, Baker said. "I'm kind of left out in the cold here."

Baker is far from alone in his predicament. There are an estimated 7,500 homes with Chinese drywall in Southwest Florida. An estimated 35,000 homes are affected across the state and up to 100,000 across the country.

The drywall, imported mainly in the years 2004 to 2007, has a rotten egg smell and emits sulfur compounds that corrode air conditioning coils and electrical wires in the home, as well as other metal surfaces.

Many who have the drywall complain of health problems from nosebleeds to respiratory problems.

Baker and his family moved into their sprawling, 9,200-square-foot home in March 2008. They experienced medical symptoms and replaced 10 air conditioning coils in nine months.

After testing the home, Lew Lewellyn, owner of American Air Testing Inc. of Cape Coral, recommended that the Bakers move out.

"He was one of the worst cases I've seen," Lewellyn said.

The Bakers eventually moved into their previous Cape Coral home, which they still own but had rented out.

Now, when Baker and his wife, Linda, return to the new home to pick up items left behind, they wear masks with charcoal filters.

Baker pointed out that some homebuilders, such as Lennar Homes, are gutting the defective drywall and replacing it.

Lennar has set aside $39.8 million to deal with the problem in 400 homes.

But that may not be the complete solution, Aubuchon said.

"My heart goes out to all people dealing with this," he said. "They want the problem fixed. The sad reality is, we don't know how to fix it yet."

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