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In Brockton, cloudy days hover over solar-powered condos

Once promising solar-powered, green condo development now a major disappointment

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / January 10, 2010

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BROCKTON - It was hailed as the first solar-powered condominium development in New England: Johnson Square Village would feature 26 town house condos equipped with rooftop solar panels, energy-efficient heating systems, double-paned windows, and a special irrigation system to collect rainwater for the lawns.

When ground was broken for this green solar community on Foster Street in 2006, many expected it would serve as a model for years to come.

But for the handful of residents here, it’s been a nightmare.

That is how Dionne Jones describes the development. She bought Unit No. 23 in October 2008 and moved in that fall. “I never thought my first home would be this disastrous,’’ she said.

It has been a blow for the developer, too.

Dan Porrazzo, of Johnson Square Builders LLC, acknowledges Johnson Square Village “looks like a ghost town’’ and says construction stalled after The Community Bank of Brockton cut off financing for the rest of the project in 2008, because not enough units had sold.

The project, originally estimated to cost $6 million, was supposed to be completed by 2007.

But the site still looks like a construction zone. Two buildings stand alongside empty foundations that were poured long ago. Mountainous piles of dirt are overgrown with weeds and strewn with litter. Of the six units completed, only four are occupied; the other two sit vacant, awaiting buyers.

Jones and other residents say the development has not been maintained as promised. They have had to deal with drainage problems and flooded basements, and some units are still waiting for basic punch-list items, such as window screens.

“There’s supposed to be landscaping,’’ said Jonandria Booker, who bought Unit No. 26 in 2007. “All of the units are supposed to be up. There should be lights. It’s dark back there.’’ The main source of outdoor lighting comes from a car dealership next door, she said.

Booker said outside people have been loitering around the unfinished complex, drinking beer, smoking marijuana, and having sex in parked cars, because the place looks abandoned. Jones said vandals set a car on fire there in September.

Porrazzo said it is not all his fault.

“The bank tightened the reins, and told us: ‘Unless you sell two more units, you can’t build anymore,’ ’’ he said. “We’re at a Catch-22.’’

Porrazzo said a public sewer line was to blame for any flooding problems at the development, and the problem has since been addressed. “It wasn’t anything we did; it was the city,’’ Porrazzo said. “It flows just fine on the property. They’ve got a low spot in their system. City Hall won’t tell you that.’’

Brockton Department of Public Works Commissioner Michael Thoreson disagrees.

“It’s not the city’s fault,’’ Thoreson said. “The sewer lines coming in from the city are perfect. The problem lies with the owner of the property there - he didn’t finish the project as he was supposed to.’’

Thoreson said DPW workers have been at Johnson Square Village several times to help residents, and they believe the drainage problems originated at the condo complex.

The worst case of flooding hit the unit owned by Sharon “Sherri’’ Tutkus, a single mother of three children who purchased her unit in May 2008. She said her finished basement was flooded with raw sewage more than a dozen times last year. Powerful sump pumps had to be installed, and her electricity bill skyrocketed from $25-45 a month to $125-175 a month, she said.

She and other residents say their monthly condo fees were supposed to cover the costs of landscaping and maintenance. But there are no flowers, no decorative fencing, and the front lawn is brown.

Porrazzo said there is a plan to plant trees, shrubs, and flowers, and install water sprinklers, but all that depends on getting more financing. He said he pays someone to mow the grass regularly; when that person fell ill last year, the lawn was overgrown for a while.

Early last year, when trash started overflowing from one of the dumpsters on the site, Jones called the disposal company. She said the company told her Porrazzo had not paid the bill.

Porrazzo confirmed this, and says he was in a dispute with the commercial trash hauling company that owned that dumpster, which held construction debris. The household trash at Johnson Square Village has always been picked up regularly, without any problems, according to Porrazzo. “We’ve actually increased the amount of pickups,’’ he said. Jones disagreed, and said there has been a problem with the household trash recently - she said the dumpster was overflowing last Tuesday.

The residents said they had been writing checks for their condo fees to Porrazzo’s wife, who serves as the condo association president, and they are unsure how those fees have been spent. Frustrated by the situation, Booker and her husband stopped paying their condo fees in December 2008.

Porrazzo said the other residents have stopped paying their condo fees as well.

As far as maintenance of the property goes, he said, “We’re doing the minimum we have to do,’’ which includes snow plowing and trash pickup.

As for actual construction, “We’re still doing as much as we can do, without help from the bank,’’ he said. “We’re limited as to what we can do.’’ More fencing will be installed soon, he said.

Porrazzo said he and his business partner, Dave Murphy, who owns Murphy Electric on Montello Street, never imagined their project would turn out this way.

Their plan to build solar condos had been so well-received that the project was awarded a $458,300 grant in 2006 by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. Johnson Square Builders LLC received $105,762 of that grant money in October 2007 and can get the next payment after another eight units are completed, according to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.

Last June, state and federal regulators accused The Community Bank of Brockton of engaging in “unsafe or unsound banking practices’’ and ordered the bank to shore up its finances.

On Jan. 1, the Globe reported that The Community Bank had filed a plan with regulators to boost its reserves, and had taken steps to improve profitability, issue fewer new loans, and sell some of its existing loan portfolio.

Bank president David W. Curtis confirmed this Wednesday, and said the situation at the bank is “only getting better.’’ He declined to comment on the Johnson Square Village development, for which the bank still holds a mortgage.

Porrazzo said he will try to seek financing from another bank.

“My thought was to build solar-efficient homes at a price people could afford,’’ said Porrazzo, a lifelong resident of Brockton. “All the great ideas and intentions we had . . . haven’t done much.’’

But he says he has no plans to abandon Johnson Square Village. “I’m not walking away,’’ he said. “I’ve got my entire retirement invested in this project.’’

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.