A house divided

The saga of the Asheville Wingate Inn involves millions of dollars, thousands of building-code violations, a toxic-mold infestation, a couple-dozen lawyers — and a lot of finger-pointing.

A growing catalog of documents at the Buncombe County Courthouse charts the story of a hotel so poorly constructed that it had to be stripped back to its concrete skeleton and rebuilt.

Lawsuits have been filed — many of them already settled out of court — between the hotel owners, contractors and others, with one court document listing $6.7 million in settlement payments. (If those suits hadn’t been settled, there wouldn’t have been a courtroom in WNC big enough to hold the trial, notes Martin Reidinger, an Asheville lawyer who represented one of the 34 parties involved.)

Now the hotel owners want Buncombe County to pay for its role in the affair — which already has led to state disciplinary action against four county inspectors, only one of whom is still on the county payroll.

Anesthesiologist Anil Patel, his wife, Nila Patel, and their hotel-operating business, The Rocky Ridge Hospitality Corp., filed suit July 17 against Buncombe County and the county employees who inspected the hotel while it was under construction.

The Patels say they had to spend more than $4.9 million fixing building-code violations that county inspectors should have caught.

The couple also maintains that they lost two years of profits, because building-code violations forced the hotel to be shut down after it was substantially complete. In addition to compensation, they’re also seeking punitive damages.

A county spokesperson vehemently denied the charges. “It’s our position that these allegations are simply not true,” said Buncombe County Attorney Joe Connolly. “We intend to defend this lawsuit vigorously, and we do not believe that the county has responsibility in this matter.”

Connolly specifically denied the lawsuit’s charge that the county was grossly negligent.

But a recent N.C. Supreme Court decision, which guts much of a traditional defense local governments have used as a liability shield in such cases (see main story), may make it harder for Buncombe County to defend itself in this one.

Neither the Patels — who live in Parkersburg, W.Va. — nor an Asheville lawyer they hired to represent them returned phone calls.

In their lawsuit, the Patels say they bought a piece of property along what’s now Rocky Ridge Road in Buncombe County (just off Brevard Road near Biltmore Square Mall). The following year, they bought a franchise to operate a Wingate Inn and contracted with a Winston-Salem construction company to build a six-story, 100-room hotel.

Construction began in 1996, and the county issued a certificate of occupancy in July 1997, when the building was supposed to be substantially complete, the lawsuit states. But on July 17 of that year, water from the building’s plumbing system flooded the hotel. Subsequently, a toxic-mold infestation was discovered in the building, which required careful remediation and partial demolition of the interior walls, the lawsuit alleges. The Patels even called in Duke University experts to identify the molds (one of them was found to be as stachybotrys, which is dangerous to humans), according to court documents.

As the interior walls were removed, however, more building-code violations were found. Among the more serious violations listed in court documents: the six-story building had no footing; legally required fire barriers were breached in every guest room; the entire plumbing system violated state code; sewer pipes were spliced into storm-sewer lines and vice versa; and the hotel’s electrical system would have overloaded if more than one hair dryer were turned on at the same time in a connected suite of rooms.

“Under the watchful eye of Buncombe County inspectors who were incompetent, grossly negligent and unqualified, the Asheville Wingate Inn was built by the general contractor and its subcontractors in a negligent and reckless manner, containing over 5,000 building code violations, many of which posed a serious threat to the health and safety of the building’s occupants,” the lawsuit charges.

Although the language seems harsh, some of it echoes what the N.C. Code Officials Qualifications Board found during its hearings in the spring and summer of 1999. Associate County Attorney Stan Clontz represented Buncombe County employees Steve E. Gentry (inspections supervisor), Larry Wesley Angel (plumbing inspector), Lawrence Russell Burleson (electrical inspector), and Roger F. Morgan (building inspector).

According to the Qualifications Board, Gentry ordered Morgan to perform building inspections on the hotel even though Morgan wasn’t fully qualified to do so, and Gentry failed to order that violations be corrected after the building’s temporary certificate of occupancy had expired. The board also found that Angel had overlooked state plumbing-code violations; Burleson had performed electrical inspections he wasn’t fully qualified to undertake; and Morgan had failed to spot code violations. The board concluded that all four had been grossly incompetent.

The N.C. Code Officials Qualifications Board permanently revoked Gentry’s inspection certificates, revoked Angel’s and Burleson’s certificates for nine months, and put Morgan on nine months’ probation.

Only Morgan is still a Buncombe County inspector. The others left the county payroll in 1998 and 1999, according to county Personnel Director Rob Thornberry.

The lawsuit also asserts that Buncombe County was negligent in hiring unqualified employees, failing to train them or require adequate training, and retaining unqualified inspectors.

Last September, Buncombe County tried to get a judge to overturn the actions the Qualifications Board took against the inspectors. But the county voluntarily dropped its petition for judicial review a few weeks later (retaining the right to re-file it within a year).

Just two weeks ago, the county did just that. In the most recent petition, Clontz cites the Asheville Wingate Inn lawsuit in noting that “other parties” are asserting claims against Buncombe County based in part on the state board’s findings. Clontz argues that the board has no factual basis for finding the inspectors grossly incompetent. He wants a judge to reverse the board’s decisions and reinstate the certificates held by Angel, Burleson and Gentry — even though they are no longer county employees.

At press time, no trial date had been set for either the lawsuit or the county’s petition.

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