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The Villages
Friday, July 12, 2024

Marion County officials should be ashamed of turning away Villagers stuck in sinkhole nightmare

For the second time in three months, a group of Villagers with a legitimate concern have been shut down by Marion County officials who apparently didn’t want to be bothered with what they had to say.

This photo taken by a drone recently shows the damage to McLawren Terrace and the two Village of Calumet Grove homes that were ravaged by sinkholes in February and May of last year.

Last week, a large contingent of residents from the sinkhole-plagued Village of Calumet Grove drove 45 minutes in the driving rain to address the Marion County Board of County Commissioners.

The group of Villagers, known as the Buds and Blossoms, hoped to air out their concerns about two ravaged homes that have become dangerous eyesores in their neighborhood since the sinkholes opened up in February and May of last year.

They were hoping to educate the commissioners with an informative slide show they had put together detailing the devastation they live with on a daily basis, including a damaged portion of McLawren Terrace that for safety reasons can’t be repaired by Community Development District 4 until the lots the homes sit on are stabilized.

The group of Marion County taxpayers also hoped to encourage the commissioners to vote against any further extensions for Asset Trust Holdings LLC, the company that bought the two homes and vows to repair and resell them but is mysteriously missing from the neighborhood.

Residents of the Village of Calumet Grove, who have been coping with a sinkhole issue in their neighborhood for almost 15 months, dressed in red to show their solidarity at the Marion County Commission meeting they attended this past Tuesday.

Sounds pretty simple, huh? It should have been. But unfortunately, things didn’t go well at all.

The Villagers certainly upheld their end of the bargain. A group of about 30 of them – all dressed in red shirts to show solidarity – patiently waited their turn to be heard. Their spokesperson, Barbara Gaines, came armed with a five-minute presentation – the amount of time they were told they’d have to speak – that even included aerial photos taken from a drone, just as Jo Bielicki, co-president of the group, had been instructed to do when she got them on the agenda.

Yellow crime scene tape blocked access to the sinkhole at the storm drain on McLawren Terrace in May.

The group was forced to sit through a lengthy pat-ourselves-on-the-back proclamation from the commissioners about Water Conservation Month and two speakers who easily surpassed five minutes each. One offered a disjointed assessment of the commission’s performance this year and made inappropriate jokes about his relationship with his wife. And the other one, who identified himself as a former Marion County Jail inmate, complained about his treatment while housed in the facility – to which Commission Chairman Michelle Stone suggested he could have a career in drama if he pursued it.

Finally, Bielicki was called to the podium but when she said that Gaines would be speaking for the group, she was told by Stone that she couldn’t defer her time. And Gaines was then told she only had two minutes to speak instead of the five the group had been promised, apparently as some sort of warped punishment that never was explained.

The devastation from sinkholes last February and May remains in the Villages of Calumet Grove and has caused consternation and angst for the 111 families who must deal with the situation on a daily basis.

Remaining calm, Gaines quickly explained the group’s concerns to a board of government officials who looked as if they could care less. Gaines was quickly shut down and the Villagers’ own representative, Jeff Gold, admonished them because he had just received a letter about the sinkhole issue a few days before the hearing. And Commissioner Kathy Bryant said she’d prefer to see the group work with the new owner of the homes.

Carl Zalak III

Only Commissioner Carl Zalak III really seemed to give a hoot, labeling it as ridiculous – the issue has even been featured in Smithsonian Magazinethat the residents have been forced to deal with the sinkhole nightmare for almost 15 months. But when he sought help from County Administrator Mounir Bouyounes and County Attorney Matthew “Guy” Minter, it was the same nonsense they’d just heard – there’s only so much the county can do, their hands are somewhat tied, and more blah, blah, blah.

Needless to say, the group was frustrated. Gaines said she felt like they “kind of got shafted.” An upset Bielicki questioned whether Stone had been “living under a rock” because he appeared to be learning about the sinkholes for the first time – from a courtesy letter that the residents didn’t have to send in the first place. And Bryant’s utopian, Kumbaya-like wish that Asset Trust Holdings LLC would even acknowledge the residents and listen to their concerns was beyond ludicrous at best.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that a group of Marion County bureaucrats have shut down these frazzled Villagers. In December, several residents, along with District Manager Richard Baier, District Counsel Valerie Fuchs and Community Development District 4 Chairman Jim Murphy, sat through countless other hearings while awaiting their turn to ask the Code Enforcement Board to refuse an extension for former homeowners Frank and Jan Neumann to fix their damaged house.

The home that Doris Morrill used to live in at 17092 McLawren Terrace continues to show cracks and damage from the sinkholes.

After quite a long wait, the board’s attorney, Linda Pisani, advised them against taking comments or testimony from anyone other than those representing the Neumanns and their own officials.

Fuchs quickly and 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 affected them in a negative way.

McLawren Terrace is still blocked and two severely damaged homes remain in the Village of Calumet Grove almost 15 months after sinkholes first ravaged the neighborhood.

The message was clear – never mind the fact that Baier, Fuchs and Andreyev Engineering’s Scott Barfield had valuable information to share about the danger to public safety the two properties were creating on a daily basis. Also, forget about the fact that CDD 4 had to increase maintenance assessment fees and will shell out at least $1.1 million before this entire mess is cleaned up. And finally – and this is the biggest one – the spineless Code Enforcement Board chose to 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 on a daily basis.

If you ask us, the way these folks have been treated by Marion County officials is disgusting. We’re not sure if they have something against The Villages, they don’t care for senior citizens or they just aren’t concerned with the terrible situation that gets worse on a daily basis for the 111 homeowners who worked long and hard to afford retirement dreams that quickly have been shattered.

District Manager Richard Baier and Community Development District 4 Supervisor Don Deakin

The one silver lining in this debacle is Baier and the five District 4 supervisors. One of those, Mark Hayes, attended the hearing and encouraged the residents to come to the April 12 CDD 4 meeting at the Savannah Center to update the other supervisors and share their concerns. And he expressed outrage when he learned how the Code Enforcement Board had refused to hear them in December.

Another CDD 4 supervisor, Don Deakin – a longtime Villager who also serves on the Amenity Authority Committee and isn’t afraid to tell it like it is – is hosting Q&A sessions Monday and Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Mulberry Grove Recreation Center. Baier is scheduled to attend the Monday meeting and residents are hoping to hear something positive about the plan to repair McLawren Terrace and the controversial stormwater drain pipe that runs between the two damaged homes.

Villager Barbara Gaines was forced to hurriedly address issues in the Village of Calumet Grove, including stormwater routed by a pump to a different drain, two dilapidated houses and the closure of McLawren Terrace, when speaking to Marion County commissioners this past Tuesday morning.

As we said earlier, we find it appalling that these residents – one of whom has suggested a class-action lawsuit against The Villages Developer – were treated so poorly by their own elected officials. They had every right to be heard and it was quite clear that most of those who have been elected to represent them really didn’t give a damn.

We think that’s a shame and we question how four of the five commissioners can look themselves in the mirror after turning away residents in a legitimate time of need.

The Buds and Blossoms social club is tackling the issues facing their sinkhole-damaged neighborhood as a unified team and is working hard to get things back to normal as soon as possible.

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