Sunday, October 19, 2003

Ryland buys back homes, pays for cleanup

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LIBERTY TWP. - Ryland Homes has built more than 210,000 homes in 350 subdivisions across the country.

It has never had one like Lexington Manor.

Like the homeowners, Ryland had considered Lexington Manor a great investment that had it all: an excellent location, high-performance school district, a multitude of suburban amenities.

"When we first saw the site, it met all criteria for good real estate," says Winfield E. Ziegenfuss Jr., a vice president of Ryland Group, parent company of Ryland Homes.

Ryland executives knew that the land had been a skeet-shooting range in the 1960s. But Ryland says an environmental consulting company, The Payne Firm Inc., assured it in writing that the site was safe for residential development after the developer, Lexington Manor Inc., made efforts to reduce contamination.

"As far as we knew, there was nothing that we had to warn people about," says Melissa Bailey, a Ryland Group vice president.

Once the extent of problems was known and 20 families sued Ryland and others, Ryland agreed to buy back 28 homes. Settlement terms are confidential. But according to Butler County property records through Oct. 14, the company has purchased 11 homes for a total of $3.1 million.

Six homeowners each received $75,000 on top of the original purchase price of their homes. Three families received from $20,000 to nearly $60,000 in addition to the price. The last two homeowners got the original purchase price.

Ryland is expected to pay out further millions to buy back the remaining 17 homes, which range from $190,000 to $330,000 each.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency authorities say Ryland and developer Lexington Manor Inc. are responsible for cleanup because they're the current and former landowners. But for now, only Ryland has agreed to help pay the cost, expected in the millions.

"We are working very closely with the U.S. EPA," Ziegenfuss says. "It is our desire to get the work done as soon as possible. We have done right by our buyers. We stepped up to the plate here to take care of a problem that we in no way, shape or form caused."

Lexington Manor Inc. has not signed an agreement to help complete the work, according to the EPA. A lawyer for Lexington Manor Inc. says the company did nothing wrong and also relied on assurances from The Payne Firm that the land was safe.

Officials with The Payne Firm Inc. also deny fault. They say their tests, performed where their workers were directed, came back with lead levels below EPA limits.

In a statement, the company says it wasn't present when previous cleanups were attempted: "We will vigorously defend ourselves in the resulting legal actions and stand by the work we performed at Lexington Manor."

By the time soil excavation begins in January, most of the families still in Lexington Manor expect to be moved out. Two plan to stay, including one who bought his home in November 2002, and a new family that moved in over the summer.

One man who moved his family out earlier this year, Jay Helson, says he worked out a buyback deal with Ryland and didn't have to sue.

"Ryland may have had the wool pulled over their eyes just like all the homeowners did," says Helson, 47. "I didn't feel that I was intentionally deceived. I don't have any issues with Ryland. I feel they treated me fairly."

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