Wednesday, September 30, 2020
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The Villages

Sudden interest in Villages sinkholes by Marion commissioners comical at best

Perhaps you’ve heard the term, “A day late and a dollar short.”

When it comes to the Marion County Commission and a collection of sinkhole-weary residents in The Villages, it’s been more like, “15 months late and a we just don’t give a damn short.”

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.

Last week, a group of residents who live in the sinkhole-ravaged Village of Calumet Grove made their second trip to Ocala to speak to Marion County commissioners about the issues they’ve dealt with since sinkholes opened up in their neighborhood in February and May of last year. There are still two dilapidated homes, both of which have been sold to Asset Trust Holdings LLC – also known as I Buy Sick Homes. And a portion of McLawren Terrace in front of the two homes is still damaged and blocked off.

The Villagers were led by spokesperson Barbara Gaines, who brought commissioners up to speed on their plight and asked them to avoid granting any further extensions to the homes’ new owner.

Villager Barbara Gaines addresses the Marion County Commission on April 2 about the ongoing sinkhole issue on McLawren Terrace in the Village of Calumet Grove as residents of the neighborhood, dressed in red to show solidarity, listen to the presentation that was cut short by Board Chairman Michelle Stone.

This gathering was a much different story than when Gaines briefly spoke at the April 2 commission meeting or when her neighbors and District officials were altogether denied the right to speak at a December Marion County Code Enforcement Board hearing.

The first trip to the commission saw Gaines get shut down after two minutes. The group had been promised five minutes but because another resident made the arrangements and didn’t do the speaking, Gaines’ time was cut by 60 percent – apparently some bizarre form of punishment that never was explained.

Villager Barbara Gaines quickly addressed issues in the Village of Calumet Grove during an April 2 Marion County Commission meeting, including stormwater routed by a pump to a different drain, two dilapidated houses and the closure of McLawren Terrace.

Gaines also wasn’t allowed to present a slide shown detailing the nightmare she and 110 other homeowners have been going through. And the Villagers in attendance were:

  • Forced to sit through several presentations and speakers who each took more than five minutes, including one who made inappropriate jokes about his relationship with his wife.
  • Scolded by befuddled Commissioner Jeff Gold – their representative – because he had just received a courtesy letter a few days earlier.
  • Told by kumbaya-like Commissioner Kathy Bryant to work things out with the company that owns the homes.
  • Rushed along by Commission Chairman Michelle Stone because another hearing was scheduled a few minutes later.
  • Given a modicum of support by Commissioner Carl Zalak III that was quickly shot down by the duo of County Administrator Mounir Bouyounes and County Attorney Matthew “Guy” Minter with the same old excuses – there’s only so much the county can do, their hands are somewhat tied, etc.

Marion County officials who were involved in last Tuesday’s discussion with Villagers from the sinkhole-ravaged Village of Calumet Grove included Commissioners Carl Zalak III, Jeff Gold, Kathy Bryant, Michelle Stone and David Moore, as well as Building and Safety Director Mike Savage, County Administrator Mounir Bouyounes and County Attorney Matthew ‘Guy’ Minter. Before the meeting was over, the commission had shifted the focus to Community Development District 4 while appearing to remove itself from any blame in the 15-month-long nightmare those in the neighborhood have faced.

Now fast-forward two weeks and you would have thought Gaines was speaking in front of a different group. The only things missing were the red carpet, champagne and private suites for the Villagers to sit in as Gaines was given plenty of extra time to make her presentation.

But after she finished speaking, it quickly became obvious that the commission already had a plan in place. Gold, suddenly an expert on the sinkholes, pointed out that he and Mike Savage, the county’s building and safety director, had visited the neighborhood a day earlier.

Mike Savage, Marion County’s building and safety director, talks about the sinkhole-damaged homes in the Village of Calumet Grove during a Marion County Commission meeting on Tuesday, April 16.

Savage, in a clearly rehearsed presentation, said he’d spoken with the contractor and engineer working on the homes and had been assured they’d been stabilized. He said he made it clear that the county wants this project wrapped up as soon as possible. And he said he offered a one-time 90-day extension if needed, which is a better than re-permitting and starting the whole process over again.

That apparently was the cue for Zalak to take center stage and lambaste Community Development District 4. Frankly, he deserved an Academy Award for the way he quickly shifted the focus off of Marion County and onto CDD 4 because McLawren Terrace and a damaged stormwater drain pipe haven’t yet been repaired – something that couldn’t be done until the two affected properties were stabilized.

Weeds are growing in the damaged portion of McLawren Terrace, which remains closed at the intersection with McAlpin Street, in front of two sinkhole-damaged homes.

Then, Zalak played the senior citizen card, which was odd considering that two weeks earlier he wasn’t too concerned that those same seniors had driven 45 minutes in a nasty storm to be rudely dismissed.

“These are the people that have built this country and given us the opportunity,” he said. “It just gets really under my skin and I can’t stand the fact that they would have allowed that to happen.”

The commission agreed to let Gold take the lead on speaking with District Manager Richard Baier and CDD 4 supervisors. And they took a get-tough stance by demanding that someone from the District or CDD 4 come to their next meeting to explain why McLawren Terrace hasn’t been repaired.

Please. At this point, we should just award the Oscar for Most Nonsense Spouted by a Government Body to the Marion County Commission and call it a day. But before we do that, consider these facts to explain the behavior bewildered Villagers witnessed:

  • Zalak is running for the office of Clerk of Circuit Court and Comptroller in the 2020 election cycle and needs some positive PR.
  • Gold is running for re-election in District 3 and knows that without the support of Villagers he won’t hang onto his cushy commission job.
  • The extra-time-giving Stone is running for re-election in 2020 and doesn’t want her name used in vain among seniors who vote on a regular basis.
  • Savage is a county employee and talking about his supposed get-tough stance with the contractor and engineer working on the homes apparently was his assignment for the day.
  • County Administrator Bouyounes and County Attorney Minter also were well-schooled in the get-tough routine and offered their own dynamite drop-ins.

Community Development District 4 Supervisor Don Deakin, left, was in the Village of Calumet Grove checking on his constituents and the damaged homes after a second round of sinkholes hit the neighborhood in May 2018.

For the record, CDD 4 has set aside about $1.1 million and raised maintenance fees by 20 percent to pay for repairs to McLawren Terrace and the damaged stormwater piping system, which residents learned earlier this month is going to be rerouted to avoid the land between the damaged homes.

Frankly, we find the Marion County Commission’s tactics disturbing at best. They must have all watched the 1997 hit movie “Wag the Dog” to learn how to deflect the issue away from themselves so well. And we think it’s beyond ridiculous that they consider such an appalling practice acceptable.

Luckily, they’ve underestimated this group of Villagers. As Zalak rightly pointed out, they are among those who have built this country into what it is today. But he apparently forgot three important things:

  • They’re quite savvy;
  • They can spot political tomfoolery in a heartbeat; and
  • They take great pride in voting and removing insincere politicians from office whenever necessary.

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

    Underpinnings have been placed along the slab to stabilize the sinkhole-ravaged McLawren Terrace home that used to be owned by Frank and Jan Neumann.

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