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Neighbors wonder what's next for grow houses

LAWRENCEVILLE

•late 2004, a young Cuban couple bought a house in Waterstone Place, a new neighborhood just off Scenic Highway by Moon Road.

The couple had young children, drove nice cars - Hummers and Expeditions - and blended in to the ethnically diverse neighborhood of $240,000 homes.

They were quiet and traveled often. If neighbors had a complaint, it was that the couple didn't take care of the yard very well. The grass was cut, but there were weeds.

It turns out that there were weeds in the yard, and a lot more weed in the basement.

Police say the young couple was part of a drug-trafficking ring, which grew marijuana in the basements of big homes in metro Atlanta, including 20 houses in Gwinnett County. Police have raided 13 addresses and are investigating seven other suspected "grow houses," said Cpl. Darren Moloney, Gwinnett County Police Department spokesman. Thus far, there have been 12 arrests in Gwinnett.

The Fayette County Sheriff's Department broke a case in February when it arrested 26 people mostly of Cuban descent - including two alleged ringleaders with connections to Miami - in an operation involving 12 houses.

From there, investigators discovered more than 70 grow houses in 13 counties including Gwinnett and Barrow, where suspects fled leaving 200 pounds of marijuana in garbage bags.

This past week, the Gwinnett County grand jury indicted three men: Sergio Agramonte, Javier Agramonte and Sergio Machena Agramonte. The three, who remain at large, were charged with manufacturing marijuana, possession of marijuana, trafficking marijuana and theft by receiving stolen property.

According to property records, Sergio Agramonte is listed as the owner of houses on Mulberry Fields Lane in Auburn and Plantation Drive in Buford where police say high-potency marijuana was grown indoors without soil using irrigation systems in insulated basements under special lights.

The ring even employed a traveling horticulturist. And it was done quietly in nice subdivisions and to the surprise of unsuspecting neighbors.

The young Cuban couple "did not make a disturbance," said Merrill Paige, whose husband, Tom, is the Waterstone Homeowners Association president.

"There was nothing suspicious at all. My husband is in the security business, and we didn't suspect anything."

Skipped town

Similar to the house in Paige's subdivision, all alleged grow houses have been abandoned, their homeowners having been arrested or having fled. Their former neighbors now wait for the authorities to seize the houses and wonder what those abandoned homes will do to values of their own properties.

"This is something we've never seen in Gwinnett. They were looking for homes with a certain criteria, specifically setting them up as grow houses and were willing to abandon them," said Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter. "We as law enforcement consider this matter almost over as far as the investigations and arrests."

In addition to drug charges, federal authorities are also pursuing mortgage fraud in some cases. Some of the houses were bought with no down payment, no documentation and no adjustable rate mortgages, Porter said. The district attorney has filed paperwork to seize the houses, which will be auctioned off, a process that will take about three months.

While there are 13 identified grow houses in Gwinnett, 11 people have been arrested here. Most of the suspects have fled, including the three indicted men, apparently as word spread within the ring about the arrests.

"A few of them hunkered down and hope that we missed them," Porter said.

Gemma Perez is listed as the owner of the house in Waterstone. It not known whether Gemma Perez is the husband or the wife or neither. And there is no Gemma Perez listed in the Gwinnett County Detention Center. The other 10 alleged Gwinnett grow houses have 10 different owners.

Grow house pot headed

to New York

The grow houses in Gwinnett and metro Atlanta basements were very sophisticated, designed and operated by professional tradesman who knew about plumbing, electricity and horticulture.

Their harvest was not intended for local smokers, but was targeted for the New York City area, where it can be sold for $5,000 to $6,000 a pound, authorities said. Pot consumed in the Atlanta area primarily comes from Mexico and costs between $1,000 to $1,500 a pound, Porter said.

A typical basement farm grew between 180 to 300 plants, each producing about one pound of pot for each crop. Growers can turn around a crop every five to six weeks, or 10 crops a year, Porter said. In a year, one basement of 200 plants could generate millions of dollars in gross revenue.

"From what I've seen, this is a very standard hydroponic setup," said Richard Ludwig, director of environmental horticulture at Gwinnett Technical College, which will be donated the growing equipment seized in the county.

The plants were nurtured in marble-size red clay and fed a hydroponic solution, a technique used commercially for plants and vegetables such as tomatoes, arugula or begonias, Ludwig said.

"You can minimize the number of soil-born organism(s) and control the amount of nutrition, temperature and light."

Red flags went unnoticed

Jan Rossouw, who lives next door to an alleged grow house on Mill Shyre Way, said his neighbor had motorized tracks to evenly spread the light onto the plants.

To control the temperature without being detected, the basement also had high-density foam insulation like a freezer, a waste recycling unit and an extra air conditioning unit enclosed under the wooden deck, he said.

An electrical contractor who move here from South Africa in 2001, Rossouw said he saw inside his neighbor's house for the first time in the three years he lived next door to the Cuban couple when police raided the house.

"They were always friendly, waived and said hello, but they didn't speak a lot of English," Rossouw said. The Cuban neighbor's daughter even went to the same junior high school as Rossouw's daughter.

"When I walked over to his house, he always came out to meet me halfway," Rossouw said. "I even had his number in my cell phone."

Rossouw said his wife was suspicious. But similar to other people who lived next door to grow houses, Rossouw said there were few outward signs before the bust. One signal was the transformer in front of his house that blew a few times over the years. The power company replaced the transformer with a bigger one with could deliver 50 KVA, or thousand-volt amps, double the voltage of the previous one.

The basement farm was consuming about 10 times the amount of electricity of a regular home, Rossouw said. The growers were tapping directly into the power line, bypassing the house's meter and power company detection. After the bust, when the power company inspected the transformer, the insulation had melted off the wire, he said.

Another sign was the moving trucks at odd hours. Rossouw said his neighbor had a regular visitor who drove a white box truck, which apparently was used to transport the crop.

Susan Su, who lived across the street from the alleged grow house in Waterstone, said her brother often saw U-Haul trucks in front of the neighbor's house when he came home from work at 11 p.m. Her brother is a chef.

"This is a quiet neighborhood. It's still shocking," said Su, who works six days a week. "We never saw them very much."

Impact to property values uncertain

As the houses are seized and auctioned, there will be a short-term negative impact on the property values of the neighborhoods, Realtors said.

"There will be a short blip, a downturn in market value," said Cleve Gaddis, a Realtor with RE/MAX. "Long term, it would help the neighborhood because the house will be owned by a family that will take care of it, love it and appreciate it and ultimately brings up its value."

Once seized, the houses will be auctioned off in a sheriff's sale at the courthouse. But the sale's price may not affect the property value of the neighborhood.

"Whoever buys the house probably will get a better deal than normal, but they do auction it off to the highest bidder," Gaddis said.

"But an appraiser should ignore that sale and should look for real market sales," he said, when they evaluate other properties.

An appraiser can choose sale comparisons, going back six months or a year if they need to use the grow house as a comp, said Lin Stadler-Perry, a Realtor with Century 21 All Atlanta.

"It will not affect values long term," she said. Appraisers will note that it was sold in an auction, and adjust for that. After a year, the auction sale may not show up in new appraisals.

"I've been watching this story will real interest," Stadler-Perry said. "These are not the kinds of neighborhoods where you would expect to find grow houses. I live in one of these neighborhoods."

Homeowners Associations, neighbors pitch in

As the weather starts to get warmer, the weeds outside are growing again. The Waterstone Homeowners Association will hire someone to cut the abandoned yard.

Association rules allows the association to charge a homeowner for yard maintenance if it's not up to community standards. That happens when people are traveling or out of the country, Paige said. For the alleged grow house, the association will put a lien against the property to recoup the cost.

For those neighborhoods without an association, neighbors have pitched in to mow the abandoned yards to protect their own properties.

"We don't have an association, but we have covenants such as no fence, no parking in the streets," said Rick Hammond, who lives next door to an alleged grow house on Friars Gate Drive.

"We've never had to enforce the rules. If you wanted to, you could take someone to court," Hammond said. He has lived in the Cloister subdivision for 15 years.

Hammond said his quiet neighbor had kept the lawn OK, but only "half-hearted."

Recently, Hammond mowed the abandoned front yard when he cut his own.

"I have a riding lawn mower, so it's no big deal," he said. "But I don't intend to do the backyard."