Teacher Bridget Murphy has had to spend most of her summer break the way her Hanover County students have: living with parents.
But don't blame teachers' salaries for her plight. Instead, Murphy, usually a resident of the Mount Vernon condominiums on Hamilton Street in Richmond's near West End, may have a better-than-average story to tell her pupils when school resumes: "It's definitely been an interesting summer."
That's if natural gas leaks at $850-a-month condos that don't get fixed for three weeks and end with your ceiling collapsing can be considered interesting. The leaks have caused major headaches for some of the residents: temporary displacement from their homes, city building code violations and claims of shoddy repair work. Some residents are even considering taking legal action over the matter, which erupted into a full-blown problem June 24, say Murphy and other residents along her row of 12 townhouse-style condos.
That's when the natural gas she had smelled off and on since Superbowl weekend in January suddenly became overpowering. Says another resident: "I came home to my unit and smelled it so strongly it about made me nauseous."
Murphy, who lives at the end of the row nearest the city gas main, quickly determined the source: "It basically started with our unit," she says. "The floor was actually coming up, there were so many holes in the pipe. All I could think about was the house on Woodrow Avenue that blew up" in a nonfatal natural gas explosion the month before.
The city came out quickly to 505 N. Hamilton St and turned off the gas.
Chris Wheeler is senior vice president of Community Resources of Virginia Inc., which manages Mount Vernon condominiums and 95 other communities in Central Virginia. He says the contractor Community Resources hired to fix the gas leak consulted with city inspectors about the job that lay before it.
They would try patching the pipe in Murphy's unit. Wheeler says a jackhammering operation found the pipes buried in 40-year-old concrete were "badly corroded." The gas main was capped and the pipe patched. The contractor went home.
But other leaks appeared farther up the line, in other units. Residents say the contractor came out several times to repair them in the same manner, but that leaks continued.
Another problem: "They were replacing gas lines without getting a permit to do so from the city," a resident says. "All they did was continue to do patchwork. It was a dangerous situation until [the city] got involved."
Dyett Ellis, head of the city's housing code enforcement unit, says the scale of the problem and the delays in getting it resolved are rare. "We had to force that to some sort of resolution right away. They were out there doing work without a permit, and we had to put a stop-work order on that."
Wheeler says that was part of the reason for the delays. He says Community Resources and the contractor it hired to fix the gas line tried to work with the city and thought they were in agreement, but that ultimately "the city, in all of their glory, came out and cited the building."
But David Fisher, city housing code enforcement counselor, says repairs "really didn't get out of the blocks until the city got involved." Residents say that the homeowners association dragged its heels about whether or not to replace the pipe and what to do with its temporarily homeless residents, and that they were all but on their own from June 24 to July 14.
Wheeler, however, says residents were offered a reimbursable $55-a-night rate at a local motel. And not all residents were upset: Sarah Campbell says that while she didn't get a hot shower for a few weeks, her stove is electric and the incident was "just an inconvenience" to her. She stayed in her unit throughout the repairs.
Inspector Wayland Huckaby Jr. cited the building as a safety and sanitation hazard July 3 but sympathized with the contractor: "They can only do what the landlord tells them to do.
There's nothing wrong with repairing [gas pipes], but sometimes you can't repair things" and have to spend the extra money to replace them.
On July 6, Community Resources received an extension to July 11 to fix the problems. Wheeler says it took until July 13 because the line ultimately was replaced rather than patched and repaired. A new line, running through attics in the row of townhouses, was installed.
But when residents returned to their condos, they were in for more surprises, ranging from dirty floors and toilets to the collapsed upper-floor ceiling that sent debris into Murphy's bedroom during the gas line replacement. Wheeler acknowledges the problems, and Murphy says repairs were being made last week.
Resident Laura Sydnor says she made the residents' case July 19 to the condo board and says she's optimistic about getting rents and fees waived and expenses reimbursed. But others just want to leave.
Says Murphy, who would now like to get out of her lease with the owner of her Mount Vernon condo: "I kind of actually wanted the city to condemn