Whose phault?: When paving plan gets icy

Looking for a place to skate this winter? Try Virginia Arts on Stewart Street: According to owner Paul Brier, you may find "a solid sheet of ice" in the middle of his parking lot.

Brier didn't set out to build a skating rink; he wanted to enlarge his parking lot. This was required by the city when he built an addition onto his business, a recording studio.

Brier got an estimate from S.L. Williamson Co. for $2,500, but before he signed the contract, he claims, Benny York of B. York Paving of Appomattox appeared at his door. York allegedly said that he had two loads of asphalt left over from a nearby job, and, noticing the construction at Virginia Arts, wondered if Brier would like him to do the paving.

Brier says that York's first estimate was for $6,700, to which he replied that Williamson would do the job for $2,500. On hearing that, Brier claims, York lowered his estimate to $2,800. Because Williamson had a waiting list and Brier preferred to get the work finished quickly, he agreed. Both he and his wife, Lyn (who's the office manager at Virginia Arts), say that York parked his equipment in Virginia Arts' lot that night and began the work the next day.

The contract, dated October 7, 2003, states: "Grade level. Apply weed killer. Then pave with 2-l/2" asphalt." The work was finished a couple of days later, and Brier was pleased– until it rained. Then, Brier claims, he had "a two-inch-deep puddle" in the middle of the lot that was "about 12 feet by 20 feet."

Lyn claims she called York and was told that someone would come by. She later saw a man pull up in a truck, open his door and survey the parking lot, close the door, and drive off– but whether or not that was York, she can't say. In any case, according to Paul, after that he and Lyn "started calling and only getting answering machines"– about a dozen times.

My conversation with York started with a jolt, when he announced, "I'm going to sue your ass." Things calmed down a bit after that, although in this case "calm" is a relative term. York disputed just about everything the Briers had told me, except for the fact that he had paved their parking lot.

First, York says that after the problem emerged, he spoke with the Briers in person once and by phone twice. "I've had nothing but bad conversations" with them, he added, and claims he said from the first that there was nothing he could do until the third week of March, when Williamson's asphalt plant reopens for the season. However, a call to Williamson yielded the information that the plant didn't close this year until December 19– almost two months after the lot began collecting rainwater.

York also insists that he didn't solicit the job by knocking on Virginia Arts' door; instead, Paul called him, perhaps after seeing his ad in the Yellow Pages. Although York allows that the job "could have been a lot better," he says that the depression in the middle of the lot was the result of the Briers' decision, at the end, to add two more parking spaces. While completing the new section, York said, he inadvertently created the problem.

In any case, York can't understand why the Briers are so frustrated, since the contract includes a year warranty: As soon as the asphalt plant opens, he'll gladly repair the lot– and if a patch job doesn't look right, he'll repave the entire lot.

When I asked Paul about York's version of the transaction– i.e., that he had explained about the asphalt plant being closed until late March– he declared that York has "never, ever said anything like that." Furthermore, because the two parking spaces in question "aren't close to" the depression, he can't see how they could have caused the problem.

The Federal Trade Commission's website, ftc.gov, has lots of tips for consumers looking to hire a contractor. Among other things, the FTC cautions against hiring a contractor who "solicits door-to-door" and "just happens to have materials left over from a previous job."

When and if the parking lot gets repaired, I'll let you know.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.