Troubled history: A timeline of problems at Crystal Lake Apartments
Author: Zach Merchant
Published: 10:58 AM EDT March 20, 2019
Updated: 10:58 AM EDT March 20, 2019
LOCAL 3 Articles
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Troubled history: A timeline of problems at Crystal Lake Apartments

LOCAL
Chapter 1

Cutoff

Lawyers for Crystal Lake Apartments are due in Bibb County municipal court Friday morning for a hearing on past code violations. 

RELATED: UPDATE | Owner of Crystal Lake Apts appears in Bibb court

But that's not what put the apartment complex in the spotlight.

It started with some orange slips of paper. 

Crystal Lake Apartment evacuation notice
wmaz

Shut-off notices posted by the Macon Water Authority (MWA) in early February informed some people at the Crystal Lake Apartments their water had been cut off.

"This is the second time we've got the notice from the Macon Water Authority, but the first time, they didn't cut us off," said Tasha Brown, a resident in the apartments. "The second time, I guess, they took it upon (themselves) because they really weren't getting their money."

Brown, it turns out, was on to something.

Felicia Parks with the Macon Water Authority told WMAZ on February 5th that the owner owed about $41,000 on their water bill.

RELATED: Macon Water Authority shuts off water at Macon apartment complex

Later that week, the water flowed again after Tony Rojas with the Water Authority said the owners agreed to make payments.

That's when things took a turn for the worse.

"Water started just pouring down in my apartment like it was raining inside," said Cheryl Gibbs.

Firefighter at Crystal Lake Apartments
wmaz

Bibb County fire chief Marvin Riggins said a leaking pipe damaged the electrical system, forcing the water and power to be shut off.

Soon after, Bibb County ordered about 70 tenants to evacuate the main high-and mid-rise buildings

"This is heartbreaking," said Juanita Collins, a tenant at the complex. "It's sad and I'm a little angry."

Chapter 2

A troubled history

WMAZ learned through an open records request that Bibb County inspectors cited the Crystal Lake Apartments for dozens of code violations since 2017, including 9 from September of 2017.

Hole in ceiling at Crystal Lake Apartments
wmaz

One of them cited "structures unfit for human occupancy."

RELATED: 'Code violations going on for many years:' Letter says Crystal Lake Apartments terminating leases

The situation drew outspoken criticism from county officials.

"From what I can tell, we have a management company who has been largely uninterested in providing a decent quality of life," said County Commissioner Virgil Watkins.

caution tape at Crystal Lake Apartments
wmaz

County inspectors gave owners 10 days to fix those September 2017 violations, but it wasn't until more than a year later that they issued an official summons to answer for the violations in court.

Mayor Robert Reichert said the delay was caused, in part, by a funding problem at the inspector's office.

"I'm afraid we're going to have to come up with some additional resources ourselves to hire additional inspectors. Our code enforcement -- don't hold me exactly to the numbers, but for purposes of illustration --I think we've gone from something like 10 inspectors to 2," he said.

County spokesperson Chris Floore later told WMAZ that number was actually 4, after 2 new inspectors had been hired earlier that week. 

John Baker, the property maintenance manager with the county, shed more light on the delay. 

According to Baker, the county tried to work with Crystal Lake Apartments management to get the problems fixed.

"Since the initial violations, Code Enforcement has had numerous phone conversations and on-site meetings with property management and maintenance on their progress," said Baker in a written statement. "The ultimate goal was to get them to bring the buildings up to a safe level."

However, Baker says that didn't happen.

doors taped shut at crystal lake apartments
wmaz

"A court summons was issued because of the lack of progress on the repairs for the violations noted in September 2017," he said.

He said that summons had nothing to do with the issues tied to the recent evacuation.

"None of this includes the violations noted in the past few weeks," he said. "Code Enforcement Officers have inspected almost all of the buildings. In every building or unit where inspectors were allowed inside, violations were found. There were also external violations that were noted."

The problems for residents didn't stop there. Days after the evacuation, tenants in the high- and mid-rise units who had been evacuated were told they couldn't come back.

Property management said those leases were terminated after the county deemed the apartments uninhabitable.

Trouble could be coming for the rest of the property's residents next. 

The Macon Water Authority posted new notices last week stating that the water at the remaining units in the complex would be shut off in 30 days if  management didn't pay its outstanding bill of $39,858 according to Guy Boyle with the MWA.

The MWA has also filed a lien on the property.

The cutoff date for water service, if the bill goes unpaid, is March 20.

As of Tuesday, Boyle said there has not been any communication between his office and property management for "2 weeks."

Chapter 3

The owner responds

But that's not the only side of the story.

WMAZ spoke over the phone with property owner Steve Firestone Thursday afternoon.

Crystal Lake Apartments leasing office
wmaz

He disputed Boyle's statement, saying he believes his side has been in contact with the MWA more recently.

Firestone also said his company has spent $1.5 million in the last 18 months to fix up units across the property.

According to him, that money was used, in part, to renovate 2 cul de sacs worth of units on the property.

But he says they've struggled to fix all code violations and pay the water bill because tenants aren't paying their rent.

RELATED: 'This isn't the first, second, nor third time this has happened:' Crystal Lake tenants receive notices that water shuts off in 30 days

According to Firestone, only 7 of the 47 units in the high-rise that was evacuated were current on their rent. $180,000 worth of rent money is currently unpaid.

"When you don't have tenants paying rent, like any business, you can't pay your bills," he said.

The nature of his business, he says, complicates things further. According to Firestone, he cannot "commingle" funds across his properties. Each one has its own set of investors and revenue from one project cannot be used in another. 

In other words, he says, there is a finite amount of money his company, Crown Bay Group, can spend on the Crystal Lake property.

Firestone says he's spent the month working nonstop to find new funds. He's exploring bringing in an "equity partner" or "refinancing." He says he expects to know the status of new funding in the next 2 weeks.

He says remaining residents should not worry about their water being turned off.

"We are certainly not expecting to get to the 20th of the month without paying the water," said Firestone.