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Toll Brothers Tells Richmond To Take Its Trail and Stick It

Toll Brothers, “The nation’s leading builder of luxury homes,” a Fortune 500 company that grossed $5.7 billion last year with profits of $806 million can’t find a few bucks to fulfill its commitment to build a short stretch of Bay Trail in Richmond. Toll Brothers earns a staggering profit of $92,000 per new home, and CEO Robert Toll collected compensation of $50 million in 2005.

When it received approvals to construct Seacliff Estates, Toll Brothers also agreed to construct a portion of the Bay Trail in front of Brickyard Landing. Seacliff Estates FDP Condition E.5. requires Toll Brothers to build a 14-foot wide Bay Trail segment from the western border of Seacliff Estates to the western border of Brickyard Landing if consent is given by the landowner and the City of Richmond prior to issuance of the first Certificate of Occupancy (CofO).


Although Brickyard Landing consent was provided in a timely fashion, Toll Brothers did not act to construct the trail, and they continue to try and weasel out of the obligation. The City of Richmond is not much better. Despite numerous requests from citizens and this City Council member for the City to enforce its own conditions of approval, the City has stonewalled the issue. That is why I placed the matter on the July 25 City Council meeting to try to get some “sunshine” on this issue and find out why the City refuses to get involved.


Despite advances on many fronts over the past year, the City’s almost complete inability to enforce conditions of project approval and respond to citizen’s complaints about abuses of permits for construction projects remains a sore point with many, including me. Issues involving Toll Brothers failure to fulfill several conditions of approval related to the Bay Trail were first raised on February 28, 2006, in a letter from TRAC to several City officials with responsibility for enforcing conditions of approval. My records indicate that I made inquiries to city staff on March 2, June 2, June 14 and June 16, all with no response whatsoever. Perhaps they were too busy planning Richmond’s new port.


I have to say that I am disappointed in both Toll Brothers and the City, a collaboration that should be one of a regulator and a regulated business. Instead, these two entities are joined at least at the hip in a partnership that makes the individual entities almost indistinguishable. It is clear, however, which one is in charge.


Toll Brothers came slumming to Richmond a few years ago when it picked up Seacliff Estates, already entitled, from a company called Suncal, which had seized the political high ground and rammed through a project that turned what could have been a Tuscan style hilltown into Richmond’s largest earth moving project, destroying what was left of a natural ecosystem in the process. This is particularly interesting because Toll Brothers advertises its environmental sensitivity:


At Toll Brothers, we believe that preserving the natural environment is an integral part of creating a community you’ll be proud to call home. We take our commitment to environmental stewardship seriously. Nationwide, Toll Brothers encourages environmental awareness by partnering with conservation groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society-earning community certifications for programs such as Backyard Wildlife Habitats and Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries for Golf Courses, respectively. These certifications assure our residents that the natural beauty of their communities will remain a proud legacy for generations to come.


Yeah, right.


Toll Brothers and its partners, the Richmond Planning Department and the Richmond Community Redevelopment Agency, were apparently convinced their experience at Seacliff was a good indication that 103,000 suckers were born every day, and most of them resided in Richmond. So they then rammed through the Point Richmond Shores project at former Terminal 1. Both the City and Toll Brothers thumbed their noses at the existing community and produced a design that brought howls of protest from a well-organized Coalition of Concerned Citizens , who did not oppose the development but only wanted a better design. The City’s EIR includes substantial errors and omissions that may have been the result of a conspiracy to defraud the public and break the law.


On to Marina Bay Westshore project, where once again, that poor little mom and pop developer, toll Brothers, aided and abetted by City staff, skated on any responsibility to mitigate a hugh problem of inconvenience and public safety caused by BNSF’s mile--long trains.


You should know that Toll Brothers, while immensely profitable and financially successful, also has a reputation for sleaze that may explain the way it has treated Richmond citizens. Just Google “Toll Brothers Complaints,” and you can find a hundred pages describing claims, lawsuits and complaints. Some samples appear below:


  • In Canton, Ohio, Toll Brothers repeatedly violated permit requirements and wetlands protection laws, running up nearly $90,000 in fines over a three-year period. The company also was fined numerous times in Canton for failing to obtain permits for design changes, such as adding a room. The changes were particularly sensitive because the development borders a wetland and even relatively minor revisions could have meant construction spilling over into the buffer or no-build zones.
  • In one subdivision in Pennsylvania, the company allegedly ignored flooding problems, covered up mistakes, and illegally tried to fix the problems, according to court documents. . In a lawsuit filed by Schuylkill Township, Pa., the town said Toll flouted environmental rules ''all for the purpose of enhancing their profits.'' ''Basically, they appeared to be out of control,'' said Bob Murphy, agent for the Canton Conservation Commission. ''Everything that could go wrong went wrong, and they didn't seem to care.'' Toll was fined $38,750 for altering 2,275 feet of the buffer zone and 160 feet of the wetland in the 44-home Canton Woods development, which was finished in 1998.
  • And in Florida, the company level-cut environmentally sensitive land for a luxury development it named, ironically, ''The Preserve.'' In Boca Raton, Fla., Toll initially denied it had done anything wrong in clear cutting the land for The Preserve, a 104-home subdivision, but later agreed to do extensive open space restoration after neighbors and city officials complained. The company also paid about $10,000 in fines, according to city officials.

·       A jury in Fairfax County, Va., ordered Toll Brothers to pay nearly $1.4 million, including $460,000 in punitive damages, to a homeowner, whose EIFS-covered home became so waterlogged that a mushroom-like fungus grew above their garage doors. The same jury -- which heard at trial that Toll knew of the risks of EIFS before the owners moved into their $522,000 home -- found that Toll had willfully violated the Virginia Consumer Protection Act, breached its sales contract, and committed fraud by misrepresenting EIFS as stucco.

·       Toll Brothers was not be able to operate in Tennessee after August 2003 due to numerous complaints and lawsuits over what homeowners claim is shoddy construction.

What can you do? You can press “reply to all” and urge your City Council to show a little backbone and demand that Toll Brother honor its commitment to the Bay Trail and that Richmond’s Planning Department enforce its own conditions of approval. You can also demand that Toll Brothers stop treating Richmond like dirt and become a responsible corporate citizen.