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The Forgotten Casualties

Homeowners: For many living in projects unfinished after the O.C. firm's collapse, their dream is now a nightmare.

April 21, 1996|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — Weeds grow and dust blows where there should be community swimming pools and landscaped neighborhoods.

The last phase of the 100-unit Baldwin Co. condominium project in Anaheim Hills was just being framed when the giant development company filed for bankruptcy last July and work stopped. Since then, the plywood sheathing on the buildings has weathered to a dull gray, maintenance in the completed part of the development has been sporadic and vandals have taken to cutting wiring and removing building supplies abandoned at the site.

Residents who bought before the bankruptcy find themselves staring out of their living room windows at the skeletal units, stuck in houses they can't sell because of the state of their neighborhood.

"We have neighbors who can't get their warranty repairs done, and we're paying $96 a month in association fees to support a community center and a pool that have never been built," said Jeff Sherwood, a 31-year-old UPS driver who moved into the development last May with his wife, Lisa, and their daughter, Lauren, now a 22-month-old toddler.

The once powerful development company's downward spiral is being played out in Bankruptcy Court, but its impact goes far beyond the corps of lawyers, bankers and bond investors who line the benches during each hearing.

"They talk about paying debts," said Sherwood, "but nobody worries about us."

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Baldwin Co. is out of money, and a continuing string of disputes with its lenders has kept its bank accounts empty since the bankruptcy was filed.

With few exceptions, Baldwin Co. hasn't started work on a new home in almost nine months, company President Alfred Baldwin says. The company had 20 projects from San Diego County to Ventura underway when it entered bankruptcy, including half a dozen in Anaheim Hills and several in Portola Hills in southern Orange County.

Last week Baldwin and his brother, James, co-owners of the Newport Beach-based company, said they would not oppose a demand to put the company under the control of a court-appointed trustee. The company's chief creditors made the demand after the collapse of a deal in which the Baldwins secretly had agreed to resign and be replaced by an executive from another Orange County building firm.

The hope is that new management will stand a better chance of finding investors who would be willing to purchase and complete unfinished projects, said creditors' attorney David Frauman.

That would bring in money to pay off some of Baldwin Co.'s $245 million in debts. It also would bring relief to Baldwin homeowners who say they are the unrecognized victims of the bankruptcy.

"It's a disaster," said Joan Blackford, who bought her Baldwin-built Summit Park condominium in Anaheim Hills 19 months ago and says neighbors are now fighting neighbors over problems that stem from the bankrupt builder's neglect of the 100-unit development.

Efforts to raise money by selling Baldwin Co. projects in Orange, San Diego, Los Angeles and Ventura counties to other builders or investors have bogged down as Baldwin's title insurance company refuses to write policies for many of its properties.

The title situation not only has choked off bulk sales of Baldwin acreage but individual home sales as well, insiders say. In at least one condo development, some buyers who had opened escrow have pulled out and bought elsewhere. The lack of cash makes it impossible for Baldwin Co. to tend to its everyday business.

Alfred Baldwin declined to discuss problems at Summit Park or other Baldwin developments.

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But Blackford says the situation is making life miserable for her and her neighbors.

Blackford and her husband, Rick, are still waiting for Baldwin Co. to repair a leaky front door and take care of other nagging problems reported last September and supposedly covered by the builder's warranty.

Some of their neighbors, like the Sherwoods, paid $2,000 extra for lots that looked out on the Summit Park community swimming pool and recreation center. It was supposed to be done by now. Instead, after nearly a year in their home, the Sherwoods still view an empty dirt lot.

Summit Park residents also are waiting for the opening of the Baldwin-built park that gave their development its name.

Although apparently completed, the park remains enclosed by a tall fence that routinely is scaled on weekends by area residents desperate for a place for their kids to play. It is off-limits because Baldwin cannot clear the title and turn it over to the city. And without city liability insurance, it cannot be opened to the public, said Anaheim parks planner Dick Mayer.

But worse than the missing pool, closed park and lack of service to homeowners, says Blackford, is that the builder's financial woes are keeping the development from becoming a community.

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