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Inches add up to aggravation

The encroachment onto store land joins a list of troubling issues the county has had with a contractor.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002

HOMOSASSA -- Officials have always said the Homosassa sewer system would help clean up the west side waterways by taking thousands of septic tanks off line. Along the way, however, one part of the system has made a mess of things at Jim Neal Jr.'s pawnshop.

Construction that was supposed to take a few weeks tied up Neal's property for nearly six months last year, with heavy machinery overtaking his parking lot and tearing up his grass.

The sewer lift station, which was installed on a corner carved from Neal's property at W Yulee Drive and W Spring Cove Road, was taller than Neal expected. A large metal control box now obscures his shop's sign.

The solution -- allowing the construction company last month to install another sign for the pawnshop -- simply added insult to injury, Neal said. The contractor brought in a concrete retaining wall normally used in ditches, filled in the culvert hole and tacked on a couple of rows of blue lettering.

"One guy wanted to know if my father died and if I buried him in front of the shop," Neal said, nodding toward the new sign. "It looks like a family gravestone."

And perhaps most troublesome to the county, the lift station does not sit entirely on the 30-foot-by-30-foot piece of property that Neal sold to the county two years ago. Part of the underground equipment encroaches on about 6 to 12 inches of Neal's soil -- a small bit of land but a large problem for the county.

Before Neal signs over his rights to that extra strip of land, he has seven conditions he wants the county to meet, ranging from a written apology and a new wooden sign to $20,000 for his lost business and his family's "pain and aggravation."

"A couple of things are still unresolved, but I think things are starting to work out with the county really good," Neal said Friday. "At least they're talking good."

County officials have met several times in recent weeks with Neal and community activist Ansel Briggs, who has taken on the case as Neal's advocate.

Public Works Director Ken Frink said he will take Neal's conditions to the contractor, Ryan Inc. Eastern, to work out a resolution.

"We're very unhappy with the way that Mr. Neal was treated and we're going to act expeditiously to make sure he's taken care of," Frink said.

"The county did not turn dirt out there all by itself," county attorney Robert Battista added. "If there were things done wrong or things done inappropriately, the contractor is the one (who should) make things right, at their cost."

William Schwartz, regional manager for Ocoee-based Ryan Inc., declined to comment.

The $1.6-million contract for Phase 1 C/D of the Homosassa Area Wastewater Collection System, which is the portion running along U.S. 19 from Pro-Line Boats to W Yulee Drive, is Ryan Inc.'s first project for Citrus County.

And it has faced problems beyond the confines of Neal's pawnshop property. The project should have been completed in October, but is now more than 90 days behind schedule and may not be finished for another month.

The main culprit: Homosassa's mix of subsurface rock, muck and groundwater made it impossible for Ryan Inc. to use its horizontal drilling machine to tunnel underground. Instead, Ryan Inc. has had to dig open trenches to lay the sewer pipes, a method that added 83 days to the project, according to a Nov. 13 letter Ryan Inc. sent to the county.

"We did not anticipate the dramatic change in rock formation to create such an adverse effect on the drilling operation," Ryan Inc. division manager Larry B. Morris wrote in the letter.

But the county says Ryan Inc. should have.

"They were clearly notified (of the underground conditions) in the bid documents," Frink said.

The delays alone will be costly for Ryan Inc. Under the contract, Citrus County could charge Ryan Inc. up to $1,000 in damages for each day the project runs late.

Add to that whatever it costs to settle Jim Neal's complaints, which the county also says are Ryan Inc.'s responsibility.

The property was surveyed before construction began, Frink said, so it was clear where the boundary was between Neal's land and the county's. (Briggs, however, said he could not find a copy of that survey.)

The lift station weighs tens of tons, extends about 20 feet into the ground and is "as big around as a house," Frink said. In the course of lowering the massive structure into the ground, he said, the workers knocked over the property line stakes.

The county is acting as an intermediary to settle Neal's complaints with Ryan Inc., but Neal said the county should take some responsibility for the situation, too.

"I believe they are the ones that have to answer to the public," Neal said.

Briggs said the county could pre-empt these kinds of problems by bringing a citizen advocate on staff, someone who could make sure the affected residents understand the project and that their interests are safeguarded.

"I'm always getting in at the tail end of something when it's become a real problem," Briggs said. "The county really needs to hire someone to work with both sides. It would save them a heck of a lot of money."

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