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Hillsborough County sinkhole victims remain in limbo

PLANT CITY — Home, or what they used to call home, is just past the yellow caution tape and "NO TRESPASSING" signs on Sandalwood Drive.

Evan Chrietzberg and Cindy Kersey navigate the sunken terrain that used to be their backyard. They round the corner of the house. Then they stop.

"That used to be our bedroom," Chrietzberg said.

Broken concrete blocks have separated away from the window. In some places, the cracks are nearly 3-feet deep. The carpet inside peeks out. The floor slopes like one in a fun house.

On Jan. 11, a sinkhole stole their home. Farmers a few miles from the white and blue stucco home pumped nearly 1 billion gallons of water a day for two weeks to save strawberries, blueberries and citrus from the freeze.

Chrietzberg and his family were able to move most of their belongings into storage. Now their home is condemned, and they've moved into an apartment. Like hundreds of other Hillsborough County homeowners, they're figuring out what to do next.

"It's really hard to put into words," Chrietzberg said. "As close as I can describe it, it's like someone dying. You get up and go to work in the morning, and then your house is gone and now your whole life is uprooted and changed."

As the Southwest Florida Water Management District grapples over water use during future cold snaps, Hillsborough County officials are working on several measures to help worried homeowners.

Water officials say the watering caused underground water levels to drop, leaving the earth without support.

But because sinkholes are naturally occurring, the water district has said it can provide financial assistance only to home­owners with dry wells that can be traced to certain farmers.

Nearly 750 people reported dry or damaged wells after the cold snap.

Chrietzberg's home is one of about 25 with major damage from sinkholes that have been reported in the county.

In all, an estimated 150 single-family dwellings have been affected.

The giant sinkhole eventually swallowed the right side of his house, part of the next-door neighbor's and spread through the back yard and affected two other homes in the Walden Lake East subdivision.

Next door, a white and peach home has cracked in half. Those neighbors had to move, too.

At a recent homeowners association meeting, other neighbors expressed concern about the value of their houses.

"I don't know what they're going to do when there are two vacant lots right in the middle of the subdivision," Chrietzberg said.

And though insurance will help them buy a new house, they will still own this land long after the house is razed.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham said he believes the county can help.

In the past, after hurricanes and other natural disasters, state legislators have made exceptions for homeowners paying property taxes for damaged homes, he said.

Commissioners have asked Gov. Charlie Crist to declare the region a disaster area in hopes that state and federal agencies might be able to help.

Earlier this week, they directed Property Appraiser Rob Turner to explore the county's alternatives for helping affected residents.

Staff will also monitor any bills in Tallahassee that could lighten tax loads.

For Dover resident Elizabeth Halstead, anything would be better than watching the hole in her front yard get bigger.

On the same day the earth inhaled Chrietzberg's home, Halstead went out to check the mail.

Walking to her mailbox, across the road from a strawberry farm, she noticed the chain link fence hanging.

It looked like there was no ground underneath.

"I thought, 'What in the world?' " she recalled.

She took a few steps closer and saw that the ground had caved in, leaving a 50-foot-wide hole between her property and a vacant lot next door.

The 73-year-old said her insurance company won't cover the repair costs because her home isn't damaged.

The county won't do anything because it's not county property.

"It's going to have to come out of our pockets," she said. "My husband and I are retired. We don't have that kind of money."

She and others with sinkholes have been talking about their legal rights and whether a class-action lawsuit is possible.

Against whom, they don't yet know.

"We're in limbo, unless my house falls in," she said, staring into the hole. "I don't have anything against farmers, but I know this isn't my fault."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2454.

Hillsborough County sinkhole victims remain in limbo 03/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 5, 2010 11:10pm]
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