LUTZ — A friendly park ranger and the sound of songbirds usually welcome Lake Park patrons at the front gate, but lately, only a white barricade that says "Park Closed" sits at the entrance.
The county shuttered Lake Park on Dec. 2, concerned about a sinkhole that opened up in the middle of the park's southern access road. Park staff first reported the sinkhole on Oct. 31.
"At that time, we hired geotechnical firm Ardaman & Associates to test the site," says Forest Turbiville, Director of Conservation & Environmental Lands Management with Hillsborough County. "We blocked off access to the road, but the park was still open."
Concerns about the safety of parkgoers grew when officials learned the depth of the sinkhole, 100 feet. That's when officials made the tough decision to shut the park down until further geologic assessments could be made on the sinkhole. The Hillsborough County Park Department manages Lake Park as a joint venture with the City of St. Petersburg, which owns the property.
"St. Petersburg has been very good and gave us permission to conduct studies," Turbiville remarks. "They've been very supportive and we hope to get some resolution soon."
While the sinkhole was initially thought to measure 6 feet wide, Turbiville says it is possibly wider under the surface. Ardaman & Associates is about to begin an in-depth investigation on the sinkhole to determine its exact depth and width as well as sinkhole risks elsewhere in the park.
"The study we're conducting will take six weeks to complete," Turbiville said. "During that time, we'll still have the park closed to ensure public safety."
While temporarily closing the park might be the safe choice, it has disappointed some longtime park patrons. It's a popular spot with amenities that include a BMX bicycle course, equestrian center, archery range, playground, fishing areas, and picnic space.
"We really miss going to the park," says Jessica Kingsborough, mother of two daughters ages 6 and 8. Still, the Carrollwood Realtor understands why one of her family's favorite stomping grounds remains barricaded. "I'm a little concerned about the safety of the park in the long run."
Safety remains the "number-one priority" for the county, but determining the risk of sinkhole activity at the park can prove challenging according to Robert Brinkmann, professor of geology, environment, and sustainability at Hofstra University.
Brinkmann, the author of Florida Sinkholes, Science and Policy says the Sunshine State's volatile karst topography and complex network of underground caverns can lead to voids that create "catastrophic sinkholes," such as the sinkhole that opened under 37-year-old Jeffrey Bush's bedroom in his Seffner home in 2013, killing him.
While it's inconclusive as to what caused the sinkhole in Lake Park, Brinkmann says changes in groundwater condition can lead to sinkhole activity, and the park endured a record rainfall last summer.
"Rainfall is an important factor," he says. "Heavy rainfall puts a lot of weight on the surface and leads to a lot of water draining into the aquifer."
Deciding how to resolve Lake Park's current sinkhole situation and, ultimately, what the park's fate will be comes down to the research team's findings. Turbeville said Tampa Bay Water prefers filling the sinkhole with grout but officials don't know if the access road on which the sinkhole formed should ever be reopened, and what impact that may have on the park's functionality.
Turbiville said the road sits between two lakes, so rerouting the path might be difficult.
As for a timeline on when Lake Park might reopen? "We're going to wait until we get the results," Turbiville says.
"I'm hoping we'll get it open in the next couple months."