I-TEAM INVESTIGATES: Backed against a wall?

Tuesday, February 12, 2019
(News 12 at 6 O'Clock / NBC 26 at 7)

COLUMBIA COUNTY, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- A family says they've been monitoring cracks in their retaining wall for years, but they called our I-Team because they believe their wall also exposes a crack in the system meant to protect homeowners in Columbia County.

The Deputy Administrator tells me the contractor never pulled a permit for it, and when the county found out, there was no penalty. Meanwhile, the family caught in the middle worries it will cost them everything.

If these walls could talk, they'd want to tell you about another wall: the one in the backyard. It might not be physically attached to the house, but it's definitely connected to it. "It's leaning forward, and it's coming down, " Stephen Montoya said. "You can see how it's cracking, stepping. Stepping, cracking." It doesn't surprise Steven Montoya in the least. For 5 years, he's been paying an engineering form to monitor it, and for 5 years, the wall has been moving and cracking.

Meredith Anderson: "Do you think, though, time has proven you right? With the cracks..."
Stephen Montoya: "With the cracks and the engineering reports, yes."

This isn't about "I told you so," though.
Montoya contacted our I-Team to say, "I think you're on to something."

Montoya has been closely following our investigation into Bruce and Heather Alford, especially the part where we found Columbia County kept giving them permits to build pools even when they kept abandoning projects. When victims went to law enforcement, they were told it was a civil matter.

"I even cautioned the Columbia County Sheriffs - I said if you don't do something with my case, you're going to be dealing with more cases," said Paul Morris. He spoke to our I-Team this summer outside the Columbia County Courthouse just minutes after the Alfords were arrested. Until our I-Team started investigating, victims kept hitting a wall.

Montoya believes his family hit that same wall years ago. "I really think the County is allowing these builders to do things that shouldn't be done and not giving them the proper oversight and, when it becomes an issue, it's between you and the builder." That often means homeowners, like the Montoyas, have to hire a lawyer and take it up in civil court. So far, they say the legal fight and engineering fees have cost the family around $40,000 for something the County might have been able to prevent. That's because the wall is in a 10 foot drainage and utility easement. A permanent structure, such as the wall, shouldn't have been built in the easement in the first place. "It's upsetting," Montoya said.

Columbia County says it doesn't have anything on record from anyone asking to put it there or a record of a permit being pulled to build the wall. The Montoyas filed an Open Records Request asking for "the County engineer that inspected it" and for the "calculations he used to determine how it was code."

The County told them "we have no responsive documents associated with your request."

Meredith Anderson: "Do you feel like the County let you down?"
Stephen Montoya: "They did. They're supposed to be the overseers."

In this case, County was an "overseerer" with the power to issue a "certificate of occupancy." When Columbia County issued it in this case, that meant the County was signing off on the home and the wall because they were in compliance with building codes and laws.

That leaves the Montoyas backed up against the wall. "Our future's at stake. Our kids' future's at stake. Our house is at stake," said Montoya.

If you're wondering if Columbia County has a code that spells out how retaining walls must be built, we wondered the same thing. After all, when the Montoyas asked the County for the code used to inspect the wall in their backyard, the County told them it didn't have it. When we asked, Columbia County's Deputy administrator told us that county code is being rewritten.