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Sinkhole anxiety chasing owners

Many are leaving the Briarwoods subdivision after discovering foundation problems. It's unclear how widespread the problem is.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
Published June 2, 2003

HUDSON - It started last August with a strange hole in Steve Barnett's front yard.

The grassy depression by the palm trees was about 2 feet across, 10 inches deep. Soon similar holes appeared on either side of Barnett's home, followed by cracks in his ceiling, walls and pool deck.

Then one day Barnett decided to prod one of the holes with a 4-foot-long piece of PVC pipe.

"It went down relatively easy," said Barnett, a 37-year-old bank associate. "It didn't seem like there was much there."

And there wasn't, engineers later told him. After drilling on his property at 10118 Briar Circle, engineers found a giant air pocket underneath Barnett's home, a void starting at 25 feet down and ending at 48 feet down.

A sinkhole.

"We're looking for a new house right now," said Barnett, who recently settled with his insurance company. "I really want to leave the property as soon as I can."

Barnett joins a string of homeowners who have left - or are leaving - the Briarwoods subdivision after discovering sinkholes under their homes.

Several houses now sit empty in this winding 185-home subdivision on the west side of U.S. 19, near the Pasco-Hernando county line. And residents who don't have a sinkhole know a neighbor who does.

"I told my wife, if we get a sinkhole, we're moving," said Ed Luna, who bought his Briar Circle home three years ago. "I thought the sinkholes were in Spring Hill, but I guess they're everywhere."

The lady next door has her driveway blocked off for sinkhole repairs. Two other houses down the street have for sale signs. Around the corner sits a sandy lot, overgrown with weeds. Neighbors say sinkhole problems prevented builders from building on it.

Bob Prezioso isn't taking chances. When he noticed cracks in his driveway and his outer walls, he asked an engineering firm to take a look.

"I saw the problem next door, I saw the problem across the street, and I thought I'd better get it checked," Prezioso said. "It's not just settling, and I know it."

It's hard to tell how widespread the problem is. No one at the county keeps track of where sinkholes appear, and the Southwest Florida Water Management District only knows about a sinkhole if the homeowner reports it.

Property Appraiser Mike Wells has suggested a way to track sinkholes: Require contractors to pull a permit to repair sinkhole-damaged homes. County staffers could bring the idea to the County Commission.

"I'd like to have some method of tracking these darn things," Wells said.

A sinkhole can erode the property's appraised value, Wells said, but once the damage is repaired, the appraised value shoots back up.

That's why, as quickly as homes are emptying in Briarwoods, they're filling with new owners.

"We had two houses on Landmark (Drive), and I don't think they were on the market more than a month or so," said Stephen Minderman, a real estate agent who has handled several sinkhole homes in the subdivision.

Once the workers reinforce the foundation with steel pins and fill the underground voids with grout, Minderman said, the homes are good as new. The repaired homes fetch close to their presinkhole price, he said.

Barnett's insurance company sent workers to repair his home, but Barnett doesn't want to stay.

"We've been told by the insurance company that it's safe to live there, but I don't see how they can justify that," said Barnett, who has two sons, age 11 and 7. "Nobody's to know what could possibly happen."

- Bridget Hall Grumet covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is hall@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 2, 2003, 02:29:58]


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