A Marion County commissioner lambasted Community Development District 4 on Tuesday morning during a discussion about a sinkhole-ravaged neighborhood in The Villages.
During the commission’s regularly scheduled meeting, Commissioner Carl Zalak III said he can’t understand why CDD 4 hasn’t repaired a damaged section of McLawren Terrace in the Village of Calumet Grove. He said it’s inexcusable that the roadway has been closed since the sinkholes hit the neighborhood in February and again in May of last year – comments that didn’t sit well with at least one Villages resident.
“To say that this is ridiculous is probably an understatement at this point,” said Zalak, speaking specifically about a damaged section of McLawren Terrace in front of two dilapidated homes. “We would never allow our county administrator, on a county road – no matter what happened – not to go out there and fix it immediately.”
Zalak’s comments came after Villager Barbara Gaines made a presentation on behalf of 111 homeowners in the neighborhood. Gaines, making her second appearance in two weeks in front of the board, recounted what it’s been like for the residents the past 15 months and asked the commissioners to refrain from granting any extension requests from the new owner of the two damaged homes, Asset Trust Holdings LLC, which also operates under the name I Buy Sick Homes.
Mike Savage, Marion County’s building and safety director, said the ground at the homes has been stabilized and more grout injections are planned. He said he’d spoken with both the contractor and engineer working on the homes to explain to them that the county wants this project wrapped up as soon as possible. And he said he offered them a one-time 90-day extension to finish the projects if needed, which is a better solution than re-permitting and starting the whole process over again.
Zalak, who is running for Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller in the upcoming 2020 election cycle, said he understands the county has limited options when dealing with the private property owners. But he reiterated that he can’t understand why CDD 4 hasn’t already repaired the damaged portion of the roadway.
“To allow a road to be unpaved and unsafe for over a year is absurd,” he said. “I think our attorney should at least write them a letter or something. This frustrates me, especially when it’s our retirement communities, because these are the people that have built this country and given us the opportunity. It just gets really under my skin and I can’t stand the fact that they would have allowed that to happen. I’m speechless.”
Mary Ann Mowers, who lives across the street from one of the damaged homes, told Zalak during the public comment period of the meeting that she didn’t appreciate his negative comments toward CDD 4, which already has put aside $1.1 million to fix the damaged roadway and stormwater drain pipe and also has raised assessment fees by 20 percent to help pay for the repairs. She said that both District Manager Richard Baier and CDD 4 Supervisor Don Deakin have been quite responsive to those affected by the tragedy from Day One.
“I think they’ve done as much as they can do,” she said, adding that their “hands have been tied” on fixing the roadway until the properties the homes sit on was stabilized.
Baier has maintained that stance for months, pointing out that it’s been unsafe to fix the roadway and a damaged stormwater drain pipe running between the two houses until the lots were stabilized. But last week, Baier and Deakin unveiled a new plan to the frazzled residents to reroute the stormwater pipeline in a different direction, which would allow them to begin repairing McLawren Terrace much sooner.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Gaines said she was happy to see that Marion County officials finally seem to be taking an interest in their plight.
“Back in December, the Code Enforcement board wouldn’t let us talk about any of this,” she said of a meeting where residents and District officials were refused the opportunity to speak. “Now we’ve got all of these board members who are talking about it. And I felt that Carl Zalak and (Commissioner) Jeff Gold both are very much in our corner and wanting to get this done quickly.”
Meanwhile, residents of the beleaguered village just want their neighborhood repaired and back to normal. Many of them remain frustrated. And some say they would never recommend The Villages to friends who are looking for a place to retire.
“I have lived here for 13 years and have loved it until the disaster with catastrophic sinkholes ruined two homes,” 84-year-old Marsha Spiegel said recently. She lives next door to one of the damaged homes and would like to sell her house because her husband died seven months ago.
“I cannot do that now and it is draining me financially,” she said. “Two years ago I would have been able to find a great buyer and give someone else the joy my husband and I experienced living here. The Villages took great pains to build and promote a wonderful retirement community, however, they are now ignoring the problem and making it a place that I would never recommend to anyone.”