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 Washing-ton 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.”
DEFENSIVE MEASURES 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:
Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Diego, CA.