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AMHERST TO REINFORCE RESIDENTIAL BUILDING CODES

Amherst will beef up its residential building codes in response to the findings of a two-year, $500,000 study of sinking homes, Supervisor Susan J. Grelick pledged Monday.

The preliminary report of the Army Corps of Engineers study, which was handed to town officials during a Monday afternoon briefing session, cites problems ranging from the town's "expansive" clay soils to marginal foundation designs and the blueprints for new houses.

"We need to provide an added layer of protection to the residents when they are building their houses in Amherst," Grelick said following the briefing.

But homeowners who have lived with the problems for years say the findings are no surprise.

"It doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know," said Mary Rachal, an East Amherst resident who, along with her husband, has spent $25,000 trying to fix their house.

According to the study, Amherst's codes were insufficient to prevent severe structural damage that has affected nearly 1,100 homes since the 1970s. Among other things, the code allowed builders to "presume" that soils were strong enough to support a new home.

Some of the changes may need state approval, but Grelick said the town "will do everything we can locally to ensure that those protections are given to our residents.

In the past, town officials have tended to minimize the "sinking homes" problems and to place some of the blame for cracking foundations on poor home maintenance.

However, neighborhood leaders say most residents with sinking homes bought them years after they were built and with no warnings about the soils or structural flaws.

"I had no idea what I was walking into. Something didn't work right and we lost a huge expense that we had to pay," said Wayne E. Gage, who bought his home in Ransom Oaks about 10 years ago.

"We paid $23,000 for the repairs, and I hope I did the right thing. The job's not done yet. But the house is still moving," Gage said.

Mary Hay, who lives near Getzville, said she and her family hired a structural engineer not long after buying her home. The verdict: The Hays face almost $100,000 in repair bills, rendering the house virtually worthless.

"The soil is the problem, but if you build in this soil you have to have the proper foundation. The town should have had better codes," she said, adding, "Really they should not have built any basements."

Many homeowners are hoping the study will help them attract a federal grant or other funds to help pay for repairs.

But for East Amherst residents Mary and John Rachal, it may be too late.

"We've already put ($25,000) into our home to repair it and that probably means we won't be able to get anything back," Mary Rachal said.

She also called pledges by town officials to improve building codes "like closing the barn door after the horse is gone."

Grelick and other officials made no mention of poor maintenance in the wake of the study report. Instead, she urged residents to protect themselves and to seek professional help.

"I would advise all residents to ensure that they do soils testing and that they talk to a licensed engineer when they're putting their house up," she said.

The study team also found that builders of nearly 60 percent of the homes studied did not follow their blueprints, a fact that prompted Grelick to remark:

"Buyer beware. . . . The buyer has to be aware and has to be careful when building."

Bradley E. Guay, technical manager of the study, said the study team found cases where -- during construction -- builders switched the locations of the family room and the garage, neglected to install critical floor supports and even changed the locations of joists that hold up floors.

Guay also emphasized that the codes did not provide guidance for the design, construction or repair of homes in Amherst's problem soils areas.

"The state's residential building code does not provide in-depth guidance for the design and construction or for the evaluation and repair of basement walls and foundations in these soil conditions," Guay said.

However, the lack of accurate blueprints bothered several Town Board members most.

"That's shocking. As an elected official, I find that appalling," Council Member William A. O'Loughlin said.

Building Commissioner Thomas C. Ketchum said he plans to study the report and will make recommendations later about how the town can change its policies for residential construction.

Officials will brief the public on the study at three meetings. Sessions will run from 7 to 9 p.m. at these locations:

May 9 -- Sweet Home High School, 1901 Sweet Home Road.

May 11 -- Amherst Senior Center, 370 Audubon Parkway.

May 12 -- Williamsville North High School, 1595 Hopkins Road.

e-mail: tdolan@buffnews.com

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