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Burning issues: jobsite arson doesn't keep most builders awake at night, but maybe it should. Environmental radicals haven't stopped their attacks on new-home construction.

DAWN WAS BREAKING ON A mid-April morning when fire and rescue teams responded to a call that a house under construction by a local builder in Sammamish, Wash., was burning. The blaze turned out to be nothing out of the ordinary, causing damage to the home's garage and roof before the crews put it out. But a bedsheet found on the lawn of a house nearby elevated the fire to a political statement.

The sheet, according to local news reports, had a message scrawled on it that read, "Where are the trees? Rapists burn." It was signed "ELF," the acronym for the Earth Liberation Front, an amorphous band of activists dedicated to protecting the environment and punishing its perceived defilers by destroying their property. That message immediately got the attention of law enforcement officials, who in recent years have become all too familiar with the tactics of radical groups. The cops' suspicions turned out to be justified, as they subsequently uncovered an incendiary device in the home where the bedsheet was found, and the gas had been turned on. Fortunately, fire personnel got there before it went off.

Guerrilla assaults on construction sites by environmental extremists, whose preferred methods of protest are arson and vandalism, might seem remote to most builders across the country. And to this day, no one can say for certain why the two houses in Washington were singled out. But while such acts of sabotage continue to be random and infrequent, they are causing enough of a stir in some quarters to raise questions about whether builders and developers are doing all they can to protect their assets and the residents who move into communities as they are being built out.

Over the past decade, ELF has taken credit for or has been linked to the damage or destruction of homes and equipment at residential jobsites in several states, from New York to California. "The big challenge for builders is knowing where and when ELF will hit next," says Kelly Stoner, executive director for Stop Eco-Violence Now, a Wilsonville, Ore.-based organization that advocates tougher legislative measures to thwart terrorist activities. The FBI labels ELF a terrorist organization and believes its activities--which have mostly escaped arrest and prosecution--are coordinated with other radical groups such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and Earth First!. (ELF did not respond to an e-mail sent by BUILDER to its Web site requesting comment.)

John Lewis, the FBI's deputy assistant director, testified before the U.S. Senate on May 18 that, from 1990 through mid-2004, extremist groups have claimed responsibility for 1,200 crimes that resulted in more than $110 million in damages. "I have a laundry list of cases that I would attribute to ELF or ALF," Lewis told BUILDER. "This is not going to go away." He urges "more-informed involvement" by home builders in safeguarding their jobsites where, as with some he's investigated, "there's a real absence of security."

During his Senate testimony, Lewis mentioned arson regarding an Aug. 1, 2003, fire that destroyed a five-story, 206-unit condominium project that's part of the 1,500-unit La Jolla Crossroads complex being developed by Garden Communities near San Diego. That blaze caused $50 million in damages, the highest total to date of any arson for which ELF has taken responsibility (On June 21, eight local activists in San Diego were issued subpoenas to testify before a federal grand jury in connection with this arson.) Law enforcement officials also suspect ELF in fires set one month later in San Diego--area communities being built by several other builders, including Shea Homes and Pardee Homes. Those cases remain open, despite a $25,000 reward that the San Diego Building Industry Association (BIA) posted for information leading to an arrest.

"Builders are becoming more sophisticated about looking for signs that might present a greater risk," says Mike Strech, director of risk management and insurance for the Sacramento-based California BIA, which drew 128 builders, developers, and insurers to its first-ever risk management seminar, held on April 19 in Irvine, Calif. The luncheon speaker at that event was an FBI agent who spoke about domestic terrorism. Strech thinks seminars like this demonstrate that builders and contractors are finally starting to heed what housing and law enforcement officials say is emerging as an imminent danger to the industry's growth and well-being, and they are looking for ways to be better prepared. "No one wants to overreact or be paralyzed by fear," he says. "We want the outside [world] to know that we're not scared and it's not going to affect our development plans."


Local and national builder associations don't need any more convincing that extremists have the housing industry in their crosshairs. 'Around here, we've elevated the word 'arson' to 'terrorism,'" says Bob Rivinius, the California BIA's executive director.

On Jan. 15, the NAHB threw its support behind legislative efforts that would give federal and state authorities the tools to investigate and prosecute acts of eco-terrorism directed against home builders. The NAHB also urged Congress to require insurers to provide coverage for acts of domestic terrorism and to provide a federal "backstop"--supplemental insurance coverage from the federal government for what private insurers don't or won't cover--for insured losses from such acts.

The trade group calls jobsite crime "an expensive problem that's getting worse," and its Web site has suggested several things that builders could do to protect their properties. The tips that pertain to arson focus on builders' training their crews to be more vigilant, investing in security and surveillance equipment, and enlisting local police to patrol their sites. In some cases, the national organization took its cues from local chapters:

* The HBA in St. Louis provides local builders with free signs they can post at their jobsites, which offer rewards up to $10,000 for the arrest and conviction of anyone who destroys property. Patrick Sullivan, the chapter's executive director, says that informants who agree to go public get double the reward.

* After arsonists set fire to two homes under construction in Ann Arbor, Mich., in March 2003, the HBA of Washtenaw County "brought in security companies who show what builders should be doing to protect their jobsites," says Maureen Sloan, that chapter's executive director.

* Following a rash of arsons in the summer of zoo4 that may have been ELF-instigated, the BIA of Washington state urged county chapters to work with law enforcement officials "to educate our home builders on actions they can implement to ensure a more secure jobsite."


It's hard to gauge how builders are responding to these entreaties, as most aren't inclined to discuss their security procedures in detail, and some say the FBI has instructed them to clam up. "One of the components of our security is not to talk about it," explains Joyce Mason, vice president of marketing for Pardee Homes in Los Angeles. Stuart Posnock, president of Garden Communities, the developer of La Jolla Crossroads, issued a terse "no comment" when asked how his company reacted to the burning of its condominium.

Builders might express unease and even bewilderment about eco-violence, but more than a few still view politically motivated arson as a West Coast phenomenon, especially if extremist groups haven't been active in their markets. For example, John Herbstreit, senior vice president of production for Fort Mitchell, Ky.-based The Drees Co., which operates in eight states, admits candidly that his company isn't doing much of anything to prevent jobsite arson and isn't inclined to pay attention to ELF unless its actions move eastward.

Even out West, builders insist that their security is adequate to counter arson that is still a rare occurrence. "We haven't had a problem with arson, and it's not perceived as an immediate threat," says William Mayer, general counsel for D.R. Horton's regional office in San Diego, which at various construction sites keeps security guards on duty 24 hours and uses surveillance cameras that do "continuous videotaping." Peter Reinhart, general counsel for Hovnanian Enterprises, says that recent arsons at builders' jobsites in the Western United States--where Hovnanian delivered 24 percent of its closings in 2004--"haven't really changed our behavior" in terms of security, which typically incorporates cameras and guards.


That builders aren't overly anxious about the threat of arson isn't surprising, given statistics that show incidents of intentional fires on a steady decline for at least a decade, according to data released in March by the National Fire Prevention Association (see "Extinguishing Fire Bugs," page 148). Builders also see few signs that sporadic eco-violence is making their insurers nervous. "Right now, arson isn't significant enough to cause rates to increase," says Karl Newman, president of the Seattle-based Washington Insurance Council. But he recommends that builders review their policies to understand "what's covered and what isn't." Strech notes, too, that the frequency of arson may have less impact on insurers "than its severity. These are the types of losses that make the front page." Laer Pearce, who runs a public affairs company in Laguna Hills, Calif., and who has addressed "green collar crime" at the PCBC show, says builders need to consider that arson can lead to "uninsurable" prolonged construction delays.

Most builders see eco-terrorism as fundamentally a law enforcement issue and want more arrests and harsher penalties. They concede, though, that construction sites aren't the easiest locations to lock down, especially when arsonists operate under the cloak of darkness. "It's not like we're making Chevy Tahoes in an enclosed factory," says Jeff Randolph, vice president of construction for Centex Homes' Northern California division in San Ramon. Bill Becker, a well-regarded consultant and developer, observes that huge master planned communities "can be virtually impossible to patrol."

Devising a security strategy is also complicated by the fact that arsons are just as likely to be the work of deranged individuals as eco-terrorists. Several builders alluded to news reports last December that quoted law enforcement officials who named ELF as a possible suspect in an arson that caused $10 million in damages to 26 homes at a Lennar-built subdivision in Maryland called Hunters Brooke. That theory turned out to be unfounded, as the five suspects under arrest for the crime--one was a volunteer fireman, another a security guard--appear to have been acting out of revenge or racial hatred. "The real question is how organized and vindictive the resistance [to new-home construction] is," says Bill Slenker, president of the Virginia-based developer Slenker Land Corp. "The newspapers make ELF look like giants, but in reality a lot of arson seems to be done by kids or renegade members."

The FBI and other terrorism experts caution builders about lapsing into a false sense of security.

Builders who think ELF's sabotage is spontaneous and isolated "are making a big mistake," warns Vicki Schlechter, executive director of the Construction Industry Crime Prevention Program in Northern California. "They are just too organized." Strech thinks too many builders are consoled by an "out of sight, out of mind" mind-set, "where they see arrests made and think, 'That's it.'" Strech was referring to arrests in Sacramento last January of four people charged with attempted arson and conspiracy to commit arson in connection with firebombings of housing developments in Auburn and Lincoln, Calif. Letters to local newspapers implied that ELF was responsible for those attacks, although none of the accused had admitted to an affiliation at press time.

But unless arson becomes pervasive enough to affect their insurance premiums or to cause home buyers to have second thoughts about a community's safety, some builders may need to be set on fire themselves before they expend more time and money on jobsite security whose effectiveness is uncertain (see "Community Watch," page 154). "After ELF took credit for the San Diego arsons, everyone was paranoid, but that died down," recalls Steve Brown, president of Camguard Systems, an Ontario, Calif.-based surveillance and security provider. "Builders will get interested in [jobsite] security again only after they get their asses kicked."


Terrorism stopped being an abstraction for Americans after the deadly bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and the suicide airliner attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001. But indigenous terrorism has long been part of this country's history Factions of the Weather Underground bombed government and academic buildings in the 1960s to protest America's involvement in the Vietnam War. And the historian T.J. Stiles, in his 2002 biography Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, paints a convincing portrait of the outlaw as "a forerunner to the modern terrorist."

The FBI's Lewis sees today's politically motivated arsonists as more dangerous than their predecessors. "We're dealing with a criminal who's smarter than the average bear, not some knucklehead who robs a bank in the middle of the day. He's good with computers, knows how law enforcement operates, knows how lawyers fit into the mix, and follows an unwritten code of silence."

There is little doubt that extremists who align themselves with ELF and ALF mean business, regardless of how lacking in organizational structure their movements might be. Their targets have included ski resorts, research centers, and Hummer dealerships. The rhetoric of these groups is equally menacing and almost Taliban-like in its take on society's progress.

"Civilization as a whole has proved to be detrimental to humans and non-human animals. We won't settle for anything less than complete collapse," read a June 3, 2003, ELF communique that took credit for an attempted arson on a home being constructed in Chino, Calif.

So far, builders aren't cowering at ELF's intimidation. But it has made some companies more cautious and alert. After the arsons in San Diego in 2003, Barratt American installed surveillance cameras and night watchmen at every one of its 12 active jobsites and at its offices in Carlsbad, Calif. "We kept that up for a year," says Mick Pattinson, Barratt's president, who still employs security guards when jobs are in their framing stages.

Indeed, builders seem to be picking their spots when it comes to jobsite security. Brookfield Homes beefs up its security personnel at remote communities in locations like Riverside and Beaumont, says Steve Doyle, president of this builder's San Diego-Riverside division. Slenker has instituted a policy that security must be on site during early stages of construction. Randolph says Centex's approach to security takes into account how its communities are phased in. "When we're moving dirt, the risk may be greater to equipment, and as people start moving in, that risk shifts to residents themselves."

The one nightmare all builders want to avoid is arson that happens when buyers are living in their communities. When ELF hit

Shea Homes' Avalon Point community in September 2003, it caused $300,0o0 in property damage. But Shea's "foremost concern," recalls Paul Barnes, president of the builder's San Diego division, was reassuring existing residents, who were mostly first-generation Asian-Americans, that their homes were safe. "Some of them had to be thinking, 'I thought I left all this behind me,'" says Barnes.


John Caulfield is a freelance writer based in Old Bridge, N.J.

Incidents of intentional fires have been steadily dropping for at
least a decade.

          FIRES       DEATHS                   (in millions)

2002     68,800        630       2,030            $1,898 *
2001     70,900        710       2,240            $1,918 *
2000     71,000        810       2,020            $1,684 *
1999     74,900        580       2,070            $2,382 *
1998     86,000        640       2,320            $1,467 *
1997     85,000        660       2,090            $1,450 *
1996     98,800        680       2,650            $1,802 *
1995     99,300        740       2,550            $2,145 *
1994     107,900       500       3,070            $1,756 *
1993     104,400       840       3,330            $1,667 *


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Author:Caulfield, John
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Date:Aug 1, 2005
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