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A fight over sinking homes

Some homeowners in St. Petersburg say sinkholes are dooming their houses. Insurers are not so sure.

By LEONORA LAPETER
Published September 25, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - In a small neighborhood south of Crescent Lake, homes are slowly sinking and cracking.

It has forced the demolition of three homes, and the city may soon demand that two more be destroyed for safety reasons. In other cases, homeowners have spent tens of thousands of dollars shoring up foundations and patching up cracks, at times reselling the homes to unwitting buyers.

Some property owners say the homes sit atop slow-moving sinkholes, the kind that don't swallow up whole homes or cars and make headlines. Similar claims are being made in communities across west-central Florida, including Ybor City in Hillsborough and New Port Richey in Pasco.

These sinkholes are harder to pinpoint and have property owners battling to recoup insurance money for the homes. Insurance companies, which are required to cover sinkholes, argue the land beneath the homes is simply shifting for other reasons. "Earth movement," they often call it.

"That's the big dispute: Are they sinkholes or are they just earth movement?" said Tony Gilboy, sinkhole coordinator for the South Florida Water Management District. "And so people play games with the semantics of the definition. ... There's probably some middle ground between the two."

Oliver Leeds, 33, is saddled with a sinking house near Crescent Lake. He bought it in 2003 and only learned later it was repaired before he purchased it.

Today, 6-inch cracks crisscross the home's facade, and the house has begun to slide off its foundation. The Air Force pilot finally sued Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

"We moved out in October 2005 because it got to the point where I feared for the safety of my family," Leeds said. "It was psychologically stressful to come home to a house like that every day."

* * *

One of the standard methods for determining a sinkhole involves hydraulically ramming a rod deep into the ground with a hammer to determine the amount of pressure necessary to push it down. A reading of 0 means there are open cavities or loose sands and a possible sinkhole. A reading of 40 means the ground is getting pretty solid.

Some experts caution that you can drill anywhere in Florida and find open cavities and dissolving sand. But is it really a sinkhole?

"There are a lot of construction problems that lead to the same type of symptoms as sinkholes, and builders are not held accountable for some of these things," said Ann Tihansky, a hydrogeologist with the United States Geological Survey in St. Petersburg. "For people to irresponsibly diagnose sinkholes ... it's pretty irresponsible science because people are profiting off this."

Rocky Scott, a Citizens spokesman, said the company now insures most homes in sinkhole-prone areas and its sinkhole claims skyrocketed to $40-million last year.

Scott denied Citizens is treating sinkhole claims any differently than it has in the past. He said since January 2004, about 40 percent of all claims were put through for repairs. Of the remainder, 24 percent ended up in a negotiated settlement, 15 percent were denied and 21 percent are in litigation. Citizens has closed 167 cases and still has 156 open cases, he said.

"The whole process of trying to determine whether it's a sinkhole, there are reams of material on what steps people go through, what experts have to be called in," Scott said. "Is it a sinkhole, or part sinkhole or not a sinkhole? It's a very, very complicated process. We are really aware of how frustrated people are."

Alan Marshall, an attorney in Pasco County whose firm has 221 sinkhole cases, including 73 involving Citizens, says the state-run company remains the hardest to collect from.

* * *

A 1926 map of Crescent Lake shows it was once much larger, reaching all the way from 22nd Avenue N to 12th Avenue N. The neighborhood to the southwest of the lake where Leeds' cracked and buckled home now sits was once covered in water.

By 1937, the swamp was filled in and homes were built. In 2003, the Leedses bought their house at 730 14th Ave. N for $182,000.

Leeds had been stationed in Japan but was reassigned to MacDill Air Force Base because his mother, Ginny Leeds, had breast cancer. She was a real estate agent and found the home for her son.

Leeds didn't know the city had condemned a handful of sinking properties with foundation problems just blocks to the south on 12th and 13th avenues N.

Pockets of homeowners to the north of Leeds' home also have battled the problem, and the city stopped short of replacing Crescent Lake Drive, which has developed natural speed bumps, for fear of causing more homes to sink.

Nine months after Leeds and his wife moved in, the couple noticed some hairline cracks on the wall. They grew slowly - a quarter inch, a half inch, an inch.

Over the months, the Leedses heard loud cracking and popping sounds. Soon they saw the stars and moon through the cracks, which became 6 inches in the worst spots.

"It just seemed like every couple weeks when we would go over, there would be another one and another one and then the back door wouldn't close into the kitchen and things were getting off kilter and the floor was sloped," said Ginny Leeds, 61.

Sandy Nettles, a Pinellas County hydrogeologist who works for Leeds, said underground tests on Leeds' home show there are cavities of loose sand beneath it. He said the limestone is dissolving and the sands are moving - classic sinkhole symptoms.

"We have little doubt," he said.

In his Palm Harbor office, Nettles pointed to filing cabinets of cases in which homeowners called him for an opinion as they tried to get sinkhole claims approved.

Most people don't realize, Nettles said, that there are fractures in the limestone beneath the ground that have produced thousands of sinkholes in Florida, many of them on the west coast. Many old wetlands and lakes may be old sinkholes, he said. That includes Crescent Lake, which he says may once have been connected to the relic sinkhole that is today the basin of Sunken Gardens.

These lesser-known sinkholes are "solution sinkholes" or "cover-subsidence sinkholes," which create forces that cause the home to sink, slowly.

Even homeowners struggling with cracks and misfitting windows don't know what they're dealing with.

"You didn't see, the way you see on TV, where the whole ground opened up and the house sinks in," said Dawn Jiminez, who battled Citizens in court to get her losses covered on her sinking triplex in Ybor City. Citizens denied it was caused by a sinkhole, but Jiminez, owner of a mortgage company, won in court. "It was down below and it worked its way up. There was a void down there and it settled," she said.

State Farm claimed earth movement caused the Wingert family's stucco home in the Oak Ridge neighborhood of New Port Richey to nearly break in half. With testimony and evidence from Nettles, the Wingerts' attorney, Richard Heiden, was able to prove in a jury trial that it was one of the slow-moving sinkholes.

Heiden said the insurance company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the claim, far more than the $200,000 to pay out the policy. The insurance company could not be reached for comment.

* * *

Like Leeds, Helena Murphy, 50, had no idea there was a problem when she bought her home on 14th Avenue N near Crescent Lake in August 2005.

Within two months of moving in, though, the window separated from the windowsill. As with Leeds, the insurance company's engineers said it was earth movement; an engineer she hired argued sinkhole.

Murphy, a product development manager, said she spent $23,500 on foundation work. One of the contractors recalled coming to the house before to fix the same problem. Murphy says the former owner knew about the problem and did not disclose it.

"I was suckered," she said.

Murphy, who has Citizens insurance, decided not to sue the former owners because the house was draining her financially. Recently, the cracks started to reappear, this time on the ceiling. She's waiting to see what happens with Leeds' case before filing against Citizens.

"My thoughts are that since this is on the record, I'll never be able to sell the house," Murphy said. "I'm thinking of knocking it down and replacing it."

Leeds, meanwhile, was recently reassigned to Texas. He's paying a mortgage on his home in St. Petersburg and renting in Texas. If his home is atop a sinkhole, he has hope for a resolution.

If not, he's out a house.

 

[Last modified September 25, 2006, 00:31:18]


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