The problems swirling around a Norristown condo building worsened Tuesday with a judge's orders that its residents leave by Friday and its cash-strapped developer diagnose its structural issues within 30 days.
"This is an unmitigated tragedy for the homeowners, no question," Montgomery County Court Senior Judge William T. Nicholas said after a hearing that held no hints of easy resolution for the Rittenhouse Club at 770 Sandy St., facing condemnation just three years after it opened.
How the condos were approved is now the subject of a grand-jury investigation, an attorney for Norristown said. The residents are scrambling to find living spaces they can afford while still paying mortgages and property taxes on their uninhabitable condominiums.
And then there is the question of fixing the building.
The developer, R. Bruce Fazio, who found buyers for only eight of the 26 condos and has defaulted on $2.5 million in construction loans, Tuesday rebutted Norristown's finding that the building is unsafe.
An engineer's assessment that concrete-block load-bearing walls were left hollow, instead of being filled with cement and other reinforcements, is untrue, Fazio said. Also, he said, the fire-safety evaluation that found the building's emergency sprinklers and alarms deficient and its wooden fire stairs unsafe ignored that he built all aspects according to code.
"I'm here, under oath, saying that it is structurally sound," said Fazio, a builder for 24 years. "I would live in that building myself."
Fazio waved his hands dramatically as he claimed Norristown officials had approved his construction techniques as he was building the condominiums in 2006.
"The borough was there every day that we had concrete poured," Fazio said. "The borough was the one that actually gave us the OK to go to the next level."
He said he personally would drill holes in the building's walls "anywhere they want me to drill" to prove false claims that it has hollow walls that could fail in high winds. But when asked about financing third-party testing, he said, "I don't have the funds personally to go out and spend $10,000 on drilling. If I can do it myself, I will do it myself."
After what Fazio described as "the biggest job I've ever done in my life," he is so far underwater financially that even selling off the remaining condominiums would not yield a profit, said his attorney, Ken Roeberg.
Under Nicholas' order, Fazio has 30 days to come up with a thorough evaluation of the building's deficiencies and a plan for fixing them.
The residents were officially ordered out when Nicholas allowed Norristown to go ahead with an evacuation order that had been on hold for two weeks. Four of the eight condo owners, after watching from front-row courtroom seats, told Nicholas they were near financial ruin over their investments in the hilltop building.
"I'm five years away from retirement, and I thought this was going to be my home," said Paula Peyton, a teacher at Ellwood School in Philadelphia, "and now I'm realizing that I may not have a home."
She said after the hearing that she planned to stay with a friend in East Norriton and pay $250 a month for a storage locker until she knows whether she will be able to move back to the condo. She said she hoped the 30-day deadline would provide some certainty.
District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman has declined to discuss the matter. A detective from her office has attended public events on the matter, including Tuesday's hearing.
Daniel D. McCaffery, an attorney for Norristown, said after the hearing that the grand jury subpoenaed municipal records last week.