Villagers enraged after refused chance to speak at hearing on sinkhole-damaged home

A Villages couple whose home was devastated by sinkholes in February and again in May received an extension Wednesday afternoon to get their property stabilized and begin making repairs to their residence. The extension was granted by the Marion County code enforcement agency.

Frank and Jan Neumann’s home on McLawren Terrace has been vacated since the early morning of Feb. 15 when a series of sinkholes plagued the Calumet Grove neighborhood.

But that decision didn’t come without controversy, as neighbors stewed in the hallway and District officials were upset at yet another delay – the extension runs through March 26 – in getting the sinkhole-damaged street and infrastructure repaired in the Village of Calumet Grove.

Frank and Jan Neumann, whose home is at 17086 SE 79TH McLawren Terrace, didn’t speak at the hearing, electing instead to have their attorney, Erik “Rick” Nutter Jr., present their case. Nutter said both the Neumanns and their insurance company have had engineers evaluate their property and they haven’t yet come to an agreement.

“There currently is a dispute between the insurance company’s expert and the Neumanns’ expert as to how to best go about stabilizing the structure and the underlying ground surface,” Nutter said. “So that has presented a difficulty.”

After the hearing, Nutter declined further comment and said the Neumanns were unavailable as well.

Frank and Jan Neumann stand in front of their sinkhole-damaged home earlier this year.

The hearing chamber was filled with Villagers – many quite vocal and visibly upset – who were frustrated about the continued delays in getting their lives back to normal in their normally quiet Villages neighborhood. District Manager Richard Baier and District Counsel Valerie Fuchs also were in the audience, but prior to the hearing starting, the Code Enforcement Board’s attorney, Linda Pisani, advised the board against taking comments or testimony from anyone other than those representing the Neumanns and code enforcement officials.

That didn’t sit well with those who had made the trip to Ocala to speak their mind. Fuchs asked the board to consider hearing from the District and understand the concerns about public safety, but Chairman Joe Krim Jr. told her that “with all due respect,” he was going to follow the advice of the board’s attorney.

After the hearing, Baier said he had hoped to present a report dated Dec. 6 from Scott Barfield, of Andreyev Engineering, who also was in attendance. The report stated that “subsurface conditions” at the Neumanns’ property and the one next door – it has since been sold – is “unstable” and poses a high risk of future sinkhole activity and additional structural damage. The report says that the increased risk of sinkhole activity until the property is stabilized “increases a risk to public health and safety.” And Barfield recommended that efforts to begin stabilizing the property begin as soon as possible.

The sinkhole-damaged home where Villager Doris Morrill used to live has been sold.

Baier said the District also has borings and ground-penetrating radar information from all surrounding properties that proves there is instability still occurring at, around and within the Neumann’s property.

“We didn’t even get the opportunity to submit that valuable information,” Baier said. “We are very concerned about public safety.”

Jim Murphy, chairman of the Community Development District 4 board, also had hoped to address the code enforcement board. CDD 4’s position, like that expressed by Baier, is that allowing the property to linger is a threat to public safety.

The sinkholes could end up costing residents of CDD 4 about $900,000, which will pay for the replacement of damaged stormwater pipes and rebuilding the intersection of McLawren Terrace and McAlpine Street. CDD 4 supervisors already have voted to raise maintenance assessment rates by 20 percent.

District officials activate this pump in Calumet Grove near the site of sinkholes whenever forecasts call for 1.5 inches of rain or more. It’s designed send water down the street to a different drain to keep it from flowing through the damaged stormwater drain pipe between two sinkhole-damaged homes.

Villager Marilyn Riccio, who lives next door to the Neumanns, said she’s also very concerned about someone getting hurt at the two damaged properties or on the blocked-off portion of McLawren Terrace in front of the homes. She added that believes the whole thing is a “money issue” and doesn’t believe the Neumanns have any intention of moving back into their house – a sentiment that has been expressed by them in recent months.

“If they were, they wouldn’t let it sit there for 10 months and be filled with mold,” she said. “So now we’ve got the house filled with mold and we’ve got the pool outside filled with mold.”

Riccio added that she was shocked to see the extension granted.

“Marion County is knowingly allowing a potential tragedy to occur,” she said. “And all those board members, I hope they’ll be held responsible if someone loses their life.”

A pipe where a sinkhole opened up earlier this year in the Village of Calumet Grove continues to be viewed with suspicion by residents.

Riccio’s husband, Vincent, said he couldn’t believe he and his neighbors weren’t allowed to speak at the hearing.

“Everybody in District 4 winds up paying for what they’re saying in there,” he said. “The extension is for the lawyers. They’re making money. One lawyer pits against another lawyer who pits against the insurance company lawyer, and they’re the ones who are making the money. So they want to drag it on as long as possible.”

Villager Suzanne Matonek, who also lives on McLawren Terrace, brought a list of concerns she had hoped to express. Among other things, it included:

  • The possibility of mold and mildew spores from both of the damaged properties and bacteria from the black pool water in the Neumann’s pool impacting nearby residents’ health;
  • The attraction of rodent and reptiles to the property, including a 4-to-5-foot-long snake;
  • Potential injury to golfers by trees located on unstable soil;
  • Continued erosion of the intersection in front of the damaged homes from stormwater that is being rerouted to avoid a damaged pipe; and
  • The continued frustration, anger, fear and anxiety the ongoing situation has caused in the normally quiet neighborhood.