Hernando Commissioner says there's no science or policy to prote - WNEM TV 5

Hernando Commissioner says there's no science or policy to protect homeowners in 'Sinkhole Alley'

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File Photo: Hernando sinkhole File Photo: Hernando sinkhole
Aerial view of Hernando County, Fla. Aerial view of Hernando County, Fla.

Hernando County is in the heart of Florida’s “Sinkhole Alley.” There are thousands of damage reports on record and millions in damage and those reports continue to multiply exponentially. But County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes says there is no science to predict when or where the next sinkhole might strike.

Dukes says that's why Hernando County doesn't even consider the possibility sinkhole development when approving massive new developments on vacant parcels, like the 3700 unit Lake Hideaway project in Weeki Wachee, even when undeveloped land is surrounded by homes with reported sinkholes that appear on county maps.

“It sounds like a really good idea and theory ‘let’s just block off whole areas of the county, we’re not going to develop,’ but there’s no science to prove that and that’s not logical,” Said Dukes.

Dukes said because there’s no “science” it also doesn’t make sense for Hernando County to require builders to construct stronger homes that are more resistant to subsidence from unstable ground, which is exactly what Pasco County requires in sinkhole-prone areas.

"It would take an Act of God to show that this place is a sinkhole- ridden place because we don’t have the science to prove that,” Dukes said.

"That's not correct at all," said geologist Sandy Nettles, who often testifies on behalf of homeowners making sinkhole insurance claims.

Nettles says he’s been using technology for years that quickly and cheaply reveals sinkhole problems and has even performed work for Hernando County to determine whether proposed storm water retention ponds might trigger a sinkhole problem.

“They’re familiar with it for doing retention ponds,” Nettles said. “Maybe it’s a different department.”

Nettles and Dukes are at opposite sides of the debate over what should be done to protect homeowners from property damage and physical danger in the heart of Florida's "Sinkhole Alley."

“Stop building in the wetlands,” Nettles said. “Developers are going to hate me but that’s tough. You know there are tens of thousands of people suffering from sinkhole damage in this state and they need some protection because they’re not trained as geologists.”

Dukes says long ago he used a bulldozer to help build streets where many of the sinkhole claims today in the Springhill subdivisions built in the 1960’s and 1970’s. “We had no sinkholes,” Dukes said.

He believes many of the current claims are the result of greedy homeowners who cashed in on loopholes that allowed them to collect insurance without repairing or shoring up their homes. “I don’t think we have 6000 sinkholes in Hernando County,” Dukes said.

In recent years, Hernando County—like other counties in “Sinkhole Alley”-- has been closely tracking sinkhole reports and mapping them on an interactive county website for all to see. "Since 2005 we've got 6581 sinkholes that have been declared sinkholes by an engineer," Dukes said.

But Dukes believes that few of those reported sinkholes are the real deal.

He says most of them are the result of subsidence due to poor site preparation and substandard building practices of the past. "It gets down to what your definition of a sinkhole is," Dukes said.

Nettles disagrees and says Hernando’s inherent sinkhole problem is exacerbated by excess well water pumping that he has fought against for years based on his testing and “We can tell where the soil is weak, where the sediment column is weak, where the rock is weak and we don’t need to drill to do that,” Nettles said.

Nettles says sinkholes are responsible for many of the cracks and warped windows Hernando homeowners use as the basis of insurance claims and his techniques can easily discern what’s going on underground—even before damage occurs.

“We can shoot an entire block in one hour and provide that,” said Nettles. “We can tell them if they’ve got a potential problem with caverns or sinkholes developing from those caverns.”

"There's nothing in the science today to say 'that's a sinkhole," Dukes said. "It's determined it's a sinkhole by a company that makes a living pouring grout in the ground."

Four years ago the Florida Senate commissioned a study of issues relating to sinkhole insurance.

That 2010 report noted Pasco County was already doing what Hernando County still refuses to consider—enhancing building codes to reinforce homes against potential sinkhole damage:

“Pasco County has amended the Florida Building County by adopting a local ordinance to provide more stringent standards than those specified in the Code…the county has also taken the lead among Florida counties to require permits for sinkhole investigations (testing) and ground remediation…”

Dukes says such measure aren’t even under consideration in Hernando County due to the lack of sinkhole science, and the advice of experts who advise him such as geologist George Foster.

“Now if you were willing to spend $250,000 per acre you could take out a lot of uncertainty by poking a hole, lots of holes, in the ground and running lots of tests,” Foster said. “But you’re never going to be able to predict where sinkholes are going to form in my opinion.”

Nettles says his firm routinely does such testing on the cheap with reliable results. “It’s not magic,” Nettles said.

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