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    Dunedin sinkhole devouring money as well as home

    A Dunedin couple spends $24,000 trying to save their house.

    By LEON M. TUCKER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 4, 2000


    DUNEDIN -- William MacLeod points to the honorary doctorate hanging from the wall of his study.

    He got it from the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston after delivering a 1982 commencement speech. The 83-year-old laughs as he reveals that the doctorate is in engineering technology, a subject he says he knows little about.

    But MacLeod's mirth dissolves as he considers the engineering nightmare that he and his wife, Laura, have lived through for the past five years.

    Sinkhole problems under their house at 1491 Bass Blvd. in Dunedin have caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage and threaten to cost another $90,000 as the MacLeods scramble for options.

    The couple have considered selling the place, but the best offer they got for the 30-year-old house was $21,000 -- $44,000 less than what they paid for it in 1986 when they moved from Springfield, Va.

    "Here we are. After 14 years down here, we're faced with a problem we never thought we would be faced with," MacLeod said. "We don't sleep well. We don't know what we're going to do."

    Upon returning home from a trip to Michigan in 1995, the couple discovered the floor in the back study had sloped more than three inches into the ground.

    Baffled, MacLeod said he contacted city engineers, who suggested that he call his insurance company.

    "It's basically between the homeowner and the insurance company; the city is not involved," said Jon Everett, public works engineer for Dunedin. "If it's a safety issue, we'll get involved. But if it's just cracking, we'll advise the homeowner to contact their insurance company."

    MacLeod called his insurance company, Amica Insurance, which sent out engineers, who drilled as deep as 55 feet around the house.

    When the survey was complete, MacLeod said an Amica representative told him that engineers found a layer of peat moss -- not a sinkhole -- 12 to 15 feet underground.

    They blamed the damage to the house on the peat moss and told MacLeod that Amica was excused from all responsibility.

    MacLeod didn't argue then. He wishes he had.

    "Anybody who knows anything about sinkholes knows you should go down at least until you hit limestone, and they didn't even come close to it," he said. "They did an inadequate job."

    Nonetheless, MacLeod contacted Atlantic Beach, Fla.-based Hightower Geotechnical Services Inc. and paid $9,000 to fix the problem.

    The company dug four eight-foot-deep holes in the floor of the study and lanai and placed 14 support piers around the foundation, which stabilized the house.

    MacLeod said he spent another $9,000 on repairs to the damaged roof, walls and outside deck caused by the sinkhole.

    Then it happened again.

    In January, the couple returned from another extended trip and discovered more half-inch cracks spidering up the wall and into the ceiling of a room on the south side of the house.

    Again MacLeod called Hightower, which charged MacLeod another $6,000 to repair the damage. The company installed more support piers on the outside.

    Now, a third examination has revealed still more damage.

    "We've been in and out of this project twice before, and now we've now given him a price that will cost well above $90,000 to fix," said John "Pete" Hightower, executive vice president of Hightower Geotechnical Services.

    Hightower said the sinkhole under the MacLeod property is "monstrous" and would take a substantial amount of concrete filling and the installation of more support piers under the house to fix.

    "I had talked to a number of people, including a lawyer, who urged me to ask Amica to re-evaluate the situation because this shouldn't have happened, given what they knew about the background," MacLeod said. "That's when (Amica) acted."

    Michael McKnight, Amica's claims supervisor, wrote a letter to the MacLeods on Oct. 27 that said he would "secure the services of a real estate appraiser to provide us with an analysis on the fair market value of your home."

    The letter continued: "I will also secure the services of a contractor to provide us with an estimate on what it would cost to rebuild your home."

    McKnight did not respond to messages left last week at his Tampa office.

    Marilyn Cavallaro, who lives next door, also had substantial damage to the house that she has lived in for the past five years.

    Stucco patches do not hide the half-inch cracks that form step patterns in the walls of her garage and brick planter on the side of her house.

    "Purchasing a home is a lifetime investment," Cavallaro said. "Any homeowner who runs into the same problem needs to know they are in for months and months of mental anguish because it is not a swift procedure."

    After a six-month dispute with her insurance company, Cavallaro said she received an $82,000 settlement. She plans to sell her home as a distressed property, which means she will get substantially less than what she paid for it because of the potential risk for more property damage.

    But the MacLeods still are waiting for answers.

    "The thing that really appals me is that there apparently is no corporate responsibility that extends beyond what's legal," MacLeod said. "I'm trying to think of ways to help others, and all I can say to people is try to get a sound second opinion because that's the only way they'll ever know. I was just utterly naive."

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