One year ago, life changed drastically for a large group of Marion County Villages residents.
That’s because in the wee hours of the morning of Feb. 15, 2018, a series of sinkholes opened up along McLawren Terrace in the Village of Calumet Grove. Two houses were left severely damaged and unlivable. And a neighborhood was left in shock and living in fear just one day after the nation was rocked by a deadly school shooting that left 14 students dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida.
On that morning one year ago, those living along McLawren Terrace reported hearing a loud bang shortly after 3 a.m. Soon, they realized what was happening and started calling 911 for help. And within minutes, emergency crews arrived on scene to find the devastation the highly dangerous sinkholes had created.
One of the homeowners, Doris Morrill, had to be rescued from her residence. And the residents of the other damaged home, Frank and Jan Neumann, were able to escape unscathed, though one sinkhole at least 35 feet deep opened up just outside their lanai door.
Throughout the day, nervous residents and public safety officials kept an eye on the sinkholes. Some shared their stories of being awaked in the early morning hours to the unknown outside. And there was fear later in the day that a sinkhole might be moving under a portion of McLawren Terrace.
Little did the residents, public safety crews and government officials know that in three short months, they’d be right back on McLawren Terrace dealing with the same problem, only on a much bigger scale.
But on the morning of Feb. 15 and into the next day, those shaken residents were still trying to comprehend how their usually quiet neighborhood had been rocked to its core. Some had been evacuated on extremely short notice by Marion County Sheriff’s deputies who were going door to door. The two damaged homes were tagged with red stickers, meaning entry into the structures was forbidden. And the two homes next to those were tagged with yellow signs, meaning those residents could remove items and valuables but couldn’t stay there.
In March, close to 200 worried Villagers crowded into the Mulberry Grove Recreation Center for a question-and-answer session with Community Development District 4 Supervisor Don Deakin. They came armed with questions about everything from insurance issues to who would be responsible for repairs to the controversial drain pipe that ran between the two damaged homes. Many residents even wondered aloud if that pipe had somehow been involved in the catastrophe.
Two and a half months after that meeting – just when nerves were starting to somewhat settle along McLawren Terrace – the unthinkable happened. Once again – this time around 9:30 a.m. – sinkholes started opening up in the neighborhood. One took out a huge chunk of the roadway and portions of the two front yards at the already-damaged homes. Two other sinkholes opened up in the yards. And a fourth re-opened underneath the lake on the golf course behind the homes.
Deakin quickly arrived to check out the damage and said he was extremely concerned about the residents in his district. Frank Neumann was busy surveying the area near his damaged home alongside an engineer he had brought in. And it was revealed that Morrill had been told that her home was a “wash” and would need to be demolished and rebuilt.
The latest round of sinkholes prompted Smithsonian Magazine to take a look at the issue. The magazine pointed out that “The Villages has been in development overdrive” and called the community a “hotbed of sinkholes.”
In June, then-Villages District Assistant Manager Richard Baier gave a detailed presentation before a packed house of residents attending the CDD 4 meeting at Savannah Center. Many Villagers continued to remain suspicious about the stormwater drainage pipe. But District officials vehemently denied any link between the pipe and the sinkholes, with District Counsel Valerie Fuchs saying there was no indication the sinkholes were anything more than, “An act of God, a natural occurrence.”
In July, Morrill’s home, which was owned by a trust set up by her late husband, was deemed by engineering firms to be unstable and dangerous at best. Frustrated and angry residents expressed concerns over the fact that McLawren Terrace was still closed in front of the abandoned homes. And Baier, now District manager, pointed out that crews couldn’t work on the roadway and the drain pipe between the homes until Morrill and the Neumanns took action to get their properties stabilized.
Those frazzled Calumet Grove residents also expressed frustrations over their property values as the nightmare moved into its fifth month.
“We know that’s a problem,” Heidi Pfleger said about the potential hit to the value of the home she and husband Richard own on McAlpin Street. “Let’s face it, as you can see, there’s not a single home for sale around here. Because what’s the point?”
Frank Neumann, who had been instructed by his attorney to avoid talking about specifics regarding his damaged house, also expressed concern about his property value. He said the entire situation had been very “disruptive” for him and his wife.
“We didn’t come here for this,” Jan Neumann said. “The stress level has been immense. We really don’t need this.”
In September, CDD 4 approved a 20 percent increase in maintenance assessment rates despite a room full of residents urging them not to do it. The supervisors pointed out that among other expenses connected to Hurricane Irma, the District already had spent $190,000 on the sinkhole issue, with at least another $700,000 expected to be spent.
Eventually, as time drug on and the situation with the two damaged homes remained unchanged, the District started considering legal action. A month later, that battle became even more intense as the Neumanns and their attorney, Erik “Rick” Nutter Jr., prepared to appear before the Marion County Code Enforcement Board along to ask for more time to fix their home.
They were granted that extension and District officials and Calumet Grove residents were told they couldn’t speak about the issue. That prompted outrage in the hallway, as officials and residents alike had hoped to address the public safety issue at the two properties.
“Marion County is knowingly allowing a potential tragedy to occur,” said Marilyn Riccio, who along with husband Vincent lives next door to the Neumanns. “And all those board members, I hope they’ll be held responsible if someone loses their life.”
Last week, for the first time in a year, Baier reported potential good news to CDD 4 supervisors. He said that both of the damaged homes had been sold to Hayden Wrobel Asset Trust Holdings LLC and the company had brought on two new contractors to make repairs to the houses, which they then planned to resell.
Baier said the District was hoping to sign deals with the same contractors to get McLawren Terrace and the stormwater drain pipe repaired. He said that work still could be six to nine months away but added that he was “cautiously optimistic” a solution might be forthcoming.
So as year two of the sinkhole saga begins, McLawren Terrace residents are hoping a solution has been found. They know it will come with a hefty price tag likely to exceed $1 million. And even though they remain optimistic, one year to the day after the tragedy struck the neighborhood, those residents’ lives are still as disrupted as they were on the morning of Feb. 15, 2018.