Code enforcement board owed Villagers chance to speak on sinkhole-plagued home

We watched a travesty unfold last week in Marion County that was beyond ludicrous.

We saw Villagers, government officials and an attorney shut down from participating in a public meeting – where the outcome of the decision made would greatly affect them.

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.

And we saw a governing board that stumbled over itself and blindly followed their attorney’s advice without at least questioning the absurd directions they were being given.

For the record, we’ve been to more than our fair share of government meetings – at all levels – and we can truthfully say we’ve never seen anything as insulting to the constituents supposedly being served by a governing body that what we witnessed with backbone-less Marion County Code Enforcement Board.

Last Wednesday, that so-called governing body heard an appeal from Villagers Frank and Jan Neumann asking for an extension to stabilize their sinkhole-ravaged property in the Village of Calumet Grove and to start repairs on their damaged McLawren Terrace home.

Villager Doris Morrill used to live in this McLawren Terrace home that was ravaged by sinkhole activity.

By now we’re sure everyone is aware of the sinkholes that struck McLawren Terrace this past February and again in May and left the Neumanns home and one formerly lived in by Doris Morrill in ruins. We feel terrible for then and wouldn’t wish that scary and extremely dangerous situation on anyone.

But let’s be honest with each other and understand this – by the time the extension until March 26 that was granted to the Neumanns runs out, they will have had more than a year to work to get their property stabilized and their home repaired or rebuilt.

The big-picture issue here is that these delays have negatively affected everyone who lives in the Village of Calumet Grove, not to mention created unsettling conversations about declining property values that won’t go away for years to come. The house Morrill lived in finally sold, but it’s still sitting there in disarray – much worse than when the sinkholes first hit on Feb. 15. And the Neumanns have been in a war with their insurance company over the value of the house – no one believes they have any intention of moving back in – and so far, they have made everyone who lives around them also suffer along the way.

Barricades keep onlookers and area residents away from the damaged portion of McLawren Terrace in the Village of Calumet Grove.
District Manager Richard Baier

The bottom line is this: Both properties are quite unstable and very likely susceptible to future sinkholes – especially given the heavy rains the area has faced this weekend. District Manager Richard Baier has certainly taken that danger to heart and has pointed out more than once that until the two properties are stabilized, he can’t put work crews in-between the homes to repair a damaged stormwater drain pipe – one that currently can’t be used and has forced a work-around that involves a pump sending water cascading down streets to another drainpipe. And he also can’t have crews repair the portion of McLawren Terrace in front of the two homes that was damaged in May when the second round of sinkholes terrorized the once-quiet neighborhood that was written about in Smithsonian Magazine, which labeled Florida’s Friendliest Hometown as a “hotbed of sinkholes.”

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

So as the Neumanns spent valuable time hiring their own engineer to disagree with their insurance company’s engineer and money-hungry attorneys came out of the woodwork like mice jumping off a sinking ship to join the battle, innocent Calumet Grove residents have suffered greatly.

For the record, let’s remember that we’re talking about retirees here who worked their backsides off for many years to be able to enjoy the best years of their lives in a place they thought was going to be pretty special but instead turned out to be a horrible nightmare. They didn’t live the American dream of raising families and working extremely hard to spend the best years of their lives feeling immense fear every time their house creaks or they hear a loud noise outside.

A work crew fills a hole with dirt that opened up near the storm inlet on McLawren Terrace in July.

But thanks to the situation they’re in and the battle over money their neighbors are engaged in – with no obvious regard for their well-being – that’s the life they’ve been forced to live the past 10 months. And thanks to the spineless code enforcement board, they’ll probably end up enduring it for well over a year.

Ah, the code enforcement board. Let’s take a trip back to last Wednesday and relive those painful moments. Let’s recall that a great many Villagers – retirees mostly in their sixties, seventies and eighties – made the long early morning drive to Ocala to exercise their rights as Marion County residents to speak their minds. And let’s certainly not forget how they, along with Baier, District Counsel Valerie Fuchs and Community Development District 4 Chairman Jim Murphy, sat through countless other hearings while waiting their turn to speak, only to hear the code enforcement board’s attorney, Linda Pisani, advise the board against taking comments or testimony from anyone other than those representing the Neumanns and their own officials.

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

Let’s also remember that Fuchs rightly challenged that archaic way of thinking and was told by the board’s chairman, Joe Krim Jr., “with all due respect” he was going to follow the advice of the board’s attorney and refuse Marion County residents the right to speak about a situation that directly affects them in a negative way.

Also, never mind the fact that Baier, Fuchs and Andreyev Engineering’s Scott Barfield had valuable information to share with the board about the true danger to public safety the two properties are creating on a daily basis. Forget the fact that Barfield – an expert in this area – could show them that “subsurface conditions” at the Neumanns’ property and the one next door is “unstable” and poses a high risk of future sinkhole activity and additional structural damage. And let’s just toss aside the fact that the increased risk of sinkhole activity until the property is stabilized “increases a risk to public health and safety.”

While we’re at, let’s also toss aside the fact that Murphy wanted to address an issue that has:

And finally, let’s just ignore the large contingent of Marion County residents who had something important to say about a volatile situation that literally is wreaking havoc on their lives every day.

Frank Neumann checks out his Village of Calumet Grove home after it was damaged by a second round of sinkholes in May.

Sound ridiculous? It certainly is. And it’s exactly what the Stalin-esque code enforcement board did by hiding behind a lame ruling so they didn’t have to actually listen to the residents they supposedly serve.

The decision to ignore them the right to speak certainly didn’t sit well with those who attended the meeting, including Marilyn Riccio, who with husband Vincent lives next door to the Neumanns.

“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.”

As we said earlier, we think the cowardice displayed by the code enforcement board is sickening at best. Residents should have the right to express their thoughts in a public hearing, especially when the decision that’s being made will directly affect them. And we hope that some higher government authority in Marion County – yes, we’re talking to you County Commission Chairman Kathy Bryant and fellow commissioners David Moore, Jeff Gold, Carl Zalak III and Michelle Stone – will find this behavior as troublesome as we do and take the appropriate action to let their constituents’ concerns be heard and appropriately acted upon.

Because when you really take a look it, that’s all these residents are asking for.