Whitehall Tenants Association President Donald M. Weinroth has been thrown out of court and is about to be evicted from his town house, but he hasn't abandoned his challenge of the condominium conversion process at The Whitehall complex in Bethesda. At issue, he says, is the right of tenants to have an independent engineer inspect their apartments before they make a purchase decision--or move.
Weinroth said tenants in the town house and high-rise complex want to select an engineer to inspect the property so that they do not have to rely solely on a study commissioned by the developers, Nordheiemer Brothers and Myer Feldman.
Engineering reports are important because they spell out the condition of buildings and are an indication of problems that may arise. Once they are owners, residents have to pay for repairs to buildings.
The right of tenants to designate an independent engineer to inspect a property slated for conversion is guaranteed by Montgomery County statute, according to Barbara Gregg, director of the county's office of consumer affairs. However, Gregg said, now that the conversion process has already begun, the tenants are no longer protected by the statute.
Weinroth said the Nordheimers would not grant permission for an independent study prior to the start of the conversion. The Nordheimers contend that Weinroth and the tenants association failed to designate an engineer to do the study.
When the tenants association went to Montgomery County Circuit Court to force the developers to cooperate, the court ruled that the tenants association had no right to bring suit. An association, it said, did not have the legal right to enforce the statute.
But the Nordheimers--converters of more than 3,000 units in the Washington area, including River Place in Arlington--agreed independently to take care of unhappy buyers by buying back any unit sold within a year of purchase.
Meanwhile, the conversion has already begun, with 55 of the 300 units sold since June 11.
Weinroth received an eviction notice last month--the developers contended they had two prospective buyers for his town house on Battery Lane--but he said he plans to appeal what he termed the "retaliatory eviction." No other tenants have received eviction notices, the project manager said.
Weinroth said Montgomery County officials have not given him much help in his fight to force the developers to agree to his demands.
The developers said Weinroth was the leader of a group of tenants who wanted to postpone the conversion as long as possible. Weinroth said he was a prospective purchaser "in good faith" who simply wanted to have all of the facts about the apartments before he and others were forced to either purchase a unit or look for a new place to live. "The tenants association didn't want the condo conversion from the beginning," said project manager Bruce Warren. "They wanted to hold up our settlements. But the clock runs and money talks. They have already held us up for a year and a half . . . . We have lost contracts because of this . . . I think delaying was their whole purpose."
Engineering access is not the only issue raised by the tenant association. The group, which Weinroth said once had more than 200 members, contacted Montgomery County officials in April about alleged building and fire code violations. The group charged that the Nordheimers failed to include the violations in the Whitehall property report filed with the county and available for review by prospective buyers.
After the tenants complained about violations, the Nordheimers agreed to postpone the start of the conversion until June.
The developers said they were unaware of the violations--ranging from cracking cement to fire protection problems--but acknowledged that the conditions existed and agreed to add them to the property report. Technically, the Nordheimers did not become owners of the property--which they bought from Howard Polinger, Oscar Gildenhorn and others--until last month, but the developers had been on the property making nearly $4 million in renovations since December 1980.
The tenants were concerned that, as condominium owners, they would be forced to pay for improvements related to the violations. At the tenant's request, the Nordheimers have agreed to absorb these undetermined costs.
Another issue raised by Weinroth is the condominium budget proposed by the developers in the property report. This budget is an estimate of anticipated costs for utilities, maintenance and capital repairs, which the condo owners will be responsible for once they have purchased their units.
Weinroth contends that the developers offered insufficient documentation for the condominium budget. In addition, he said, without an independent engineering report, it is impossible for tenants to intelligently review the proposed condo budget.
"What I think they the tenants association were aiming for was to get people to cancel their contracts to buy so that we would have to abandon the conversion," Gary Nordheimer said. "That would work if they were dealing with a financially weak developer but they were heading down the wrong road with us. We spent too much money already fixing up this place."