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Sinkholes in St. Petersburg? Not as rare as you'd think

Luis Martinez of St. Petersburg said he thinks the cracks in his living room tile floors started three to four years ago. The damage is believed to be caused by a sinkhole.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Luis Martinez of St. Petersburg said he thinks the cracks in his living room tile floors started three to four years ago. The damage is believed to be caused by a sinkhole.

Everyone knows there are sinkholes in Hernando County, where nearly a third of homeowners in one subdivision have reported sinkhole damage.

And everyone past a certain age remembers the Great Winter Park Sinkhole, which in 1981 swallowed a house, five Porsches and half of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

But sinkholes in the city of St. Petersburg? Within a few miles of tony Beach Drive restaurants and shops?

Yes, more than a dozen St. Petersburg homeowners have filed insurance claims for sinkhole damage since 2007, according to a short-lived state database.

A few years back, Carlene Byfield's son was mowing the lawn at their home south of downtown when he suddenly sank into a knee-deep hole.

Then "the foundation cracked all over from the garage to the wall,'' said Byfield, who had to sue her insurer, University Property & Casualty, to get it to pay for repairs. "A lot of people came in and did work and it's livable for right now.''

As the Tampa Bay Times recently reported, the number of sinkhole claims in Florida has surged in the past five years with many homeowners getting big payouts that are causing mounting losses for insurance companies. State-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which has more Florida policyholders than any other company, says it collected $37 million in sinkhole premiums in the first nine months of 2011 but paid out almost $314 million.

Like the rest of Pinellas County, St. Petersburg lies in a "sinkhole alley'' that includes Pasco, Hillsborough and especially Hernando, which leads the state in sinkhole claims.

The entire region is prone to sinkholes because of its geology: underground limestone caverns full of voids that can collapse due to fluctuating water levels. Hernando, with its sandy soil, has more sinkholes than St. Petersburg, much of which sits on a fairly thick layer of clay that can better support structures.

Yet St. Petersburg is not immune to sinkholes and sinkhole-like activity, particularly in the Crescent Lake area north of downtown. There, roads ripple into natural speed bumps and vacant lots that are all that remain of houses that had to be demolished because of severe cracking.

Old maps show that Crescent Lake used to be larger. As the water receded, it left behind organic-rich sediments on which homes were built.

"Those sediments can decompose, and once that happens there is a change in mass and there can be subsidence,'' said Harley Means, Florida's assistant state geologist. "It'd be kind of like digging a hole and filling it with leaves and sticks and twigs and filling it over. As it rots and degrades, the land surface subsides.''

Four of the 14 St. Petersburg claims reported to the state Office of Insurance Regulation were from homeowners living near Crescent Lake. Among them is Peter Betzer, president of St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership and former dean of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida.

Between 2006 and last July, contractors pulled permits for an estimated $103,000 in repairs to Betzer's home on the west side of the lake, city records show. The work included supporting the 1940s-era house with steel pins.

"It's a long, ugly saga and hopefully we got it right this time,'' Betzer said.

But it was a house west of U.S. 19 and far from Crescent Lake that had the costliest repairs — $137,100. Another home in that area was stabilized to the tune of $64,180.

Not all homeowners have fared as well with their insurance companies.

Sulemy Sanchez and her fiance, Luis Martinez, hired a lawyer to press their claim against Citizens, which they say has refused to pay for repairs to their house in southwest St. Petersburg.

"You can see cracks in the hallway, on the ceiling, on the floors, definitely in the living room,'' Sanchez said. "I came from Cuba and didn't know anything about sinkholes, but we heard from a friend that this happens to a lot of people around the Tampa area.''

Sanchez's claim is among thousands listed in a database created in 2005 on the premise that detailed claims information would help show the true extent of the state's sinkhole problem. But the Office of Insurance Regulation didn't start getting sinkhole reports from insurers until 2010, and Florida lawmakers killed the database last year.

Insurance companies argued that the reports, which include homeowners' addresses, provided a veritable "road map'' for plaintiffs' lawyers seeking to sue.

Citizens and other companies also complain that many homeowners who get big payouts don't make repairs but instead use the money to pay off mortgages, replace roofs or put in swimming pools. The Times found that nearly half of Hernando County homeowners whose claims were paid by Citizens from 2008 to 2010 have never repaired the sinkhole damage.

Changes to state law last year are supposed to make it harder to file claims and sue insurers.

Although St. Petersburg is hardly a hotbed of sinkhole claims, insurance companies seem to be keeping a close eye on what's happening in the city.

Karen Freggens, a permitting systems analyst for St. Petersburg's economic development department, said she got a call from an insurer not long ago. She doesn't remember which company, but said it wanted to know if its policyholders who received payouts on sinkhole claims had pulled permits to make repairs.

"That was the first time anybody asked,'' Freggens said. And how many had gotten permits?

"About 50-50.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at smartin@tampabay.com.

Sinkholes in St. Petersburg? Not as rare as you'd think 01/28/12 [Last modified: Sunday, January 29, 2012 12:09am]
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