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Directors of the Healdsburg Animal Shelter are pinning their hopes on a lawsuit to collect the money to fix or rebuild their empty $3.5 million facility, which has been plagued by construction and design defects.

But they estimate it will take 18 months to two years to resolve the litigation and collect any funds, and perhaps another year after that to repair, or possibly dismantle and rebuild, the structure on Westside Road.

In the meantime, the cramped 52-year-old shelter across the road will continue to handle strays, and dogs and cats awaiting adoption.

Shelter officials said the animals there are well cared for, happy and healthy.

"The shelter is booming now. It has been a great summer in terms of adoptions," said Bill Anderson, head of the board of directors.

After a summer hiatus, directors on Wednesday night resumed their monthly public forums at the unfinished animal shelter, reading portions of the lawsuit they filed last month in Sonoma County Superior Court against the architect, general contractor and a half-dozen or so subcontractors who worked on the new facility.

"It's an exciting time. We can hopefully get this past us. Folks can see who is to blame and re-focus on running the animal shelter," Anderson said.

He acknowledged the turbulence in the organization earlier this year, sparked by the unfinished shelter and turnover of executive directors and board members. It was admittedly a "mess" and "disaster," what he described as an organization in tremendous crisis, in which friends became upset with each other.

"It has largely calmed down," he said.

He told an audience of about 30 people that a forensic audit of the organizations' finances showed there was no malfeasance or misappropriation of funds linked to the stalled building, or any co-mingling of funds between shelter operations and the new building campaign.

Anderson said donors to the new shelter had a right to be upset, but "your investment is protected." He said there is every expectation the nonprofit organization will get the funds to fix the building through mediation, insurance settlement or even going to trial.

"We hope to get a recovery. We can't be assured how much it will be," cautioned the shelter's attorney Maureen Corcoran. "Experts on the other side could be more persuasive."

She also said the fee arrangements for the San Francisco law firm representing the animal shelter are confidential.

Anderson defended members of the volunteer board for any responsibility in the construction problems, saying they relied on the architects and other professionals to supervise the work.

And he said the county never issued a certificate of occupancy for the building and can't be held liable.

Due to faulty design and negligent construction, shelter officials say, the facility is "effectively uninhabitable."

From its foundation to its windows, the design and execution, the shelter needs substantial change, according to shelter officials.

Virtually all of the concrete slabs in the building have extensive cracking.

In legal documents, the board of directors detail a litany of deficiencies, including alleged incorrect compacting of the building pad, which led to cracking in the concrete foundation; use of defective concrete; and concrete poured in rainy conditions, leading to pitting and other problems.

Shelter officials also say that in several locations there are substantial gaps between windows and framing, allowing wind and rain to penetrate.

Beyond the construction defects, they said there are design flaws that were brought to the attention of architects but not corrected, including the lack of a separate entrance for animal intake; insufficient drains in the dog runs and animal holding rooms; cages that are too small to humanely house dogs; and noisy heating and air conditioning systems that disturb the animals.

The problems even extend to accessibility issues for disabled persons, including access to the public restroom and mezzanine.

Attorney Corcoran said the parties named in the shelter's complaint have not formally responded in court filings.

The financial documents and a copy of the 192-page lawsuit are scheduled to be posted today on the animal shelter's website, healdsburgshelter.org.

(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.)