PLANT CITY — On a cold winter morning a few years ago, Donald J. Walker woke to discover tiny cracks creeping across the ceiling, walls and floors of the concrete block home he built 50 years ago.
"They were in every room," he said.
He ventured outside. In his front yard near the fence line he discovered a 10-foot-deep sinkhole.
Sinkholes aren't exactly uncommon in west-central Florida, an area dubbed "sinkhole alley," but what followed is unusual. Instead of turning to an insurer for help, Walker is blaming a nearby nursery and insisting it compensate him for damage to his house, estimated at tens of thousands of dollars.
At first, the two sides talked. Now, three years after negotiations with Epps' Nursery failed to produce an agreement, Walker has filed a lawsuit.
"They won't even come out here and look at it," he said, referring to the fissures that crisscross his home in the 900 block of Haggard Road. Some of the cracks are a half-inch wide.
"I've lived here 50 years and built this house with my bare hands," he said.
Walker, 90, a retired phosphate mine mechanic, lives alone after his wife, Shirley, died a few years ago. He stopped payments on his homeowner's insurance that would have covered the damage, saying he couldn't keep up with the premiums.
"They go up every year," he said.
Epps' Nursery, at 4770 U.S. 92 in Plant City, has declined to comment. But in a letter to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, Kevin G. Epps said his company isn't responsible for the damage because its well-pumping stations were too far away.
Walker and his lawyer, Robert J. Stanz of Lakeland, disagree. They say geological surveys indicate Epps' pumping stations were the nearest ones to Walker's house and that the company pumped 5.5 million gallons of water to spray its plants during 10 days in January 2010, when the sinkhole appeared. The lawsuit was filed April 30 at the 13th Judicial Circuit Court.
Geologists say Florida's flat, sandy topography and porous limestone subsurface create ideal conditions for forming sinkholes. Pumping groundwater creates voids in the caverns containing the water, causing the structures to collapse.
"When you pump the groundwater it's almost like a soda straw sucking down the water table," USF geology professor Charles Connor said. "Florida has a lot of limestone, and it dissolves naturally in the groundwater and becomes very porous over time."
That's what happened under Walker's property, Stanz said.
The first sign was that his well ran dry. Then, a few days later, a sinkhole appeared and cracks spread across the bedrooms, kitchen, living room, hallways and exterior walls as the house shifted and sank. The sinkhole, about 15 feet from Walker's house, has since filled with dirt and weeds and now looks about 4 feet deep.
"His house has been totally devastated by this," Stanz said.
After Walker complained to Swiftmud, Epps wrote a letter to the agency saying its permit to pump water covers activity within 1,400 feet of its wells. Because Walker's house is 1,600 feet away, the company "is not responsible for the well problem."
Stanz said that doesn't matter because Epps' pumping caused the sinkhole.
"I don't think that gives them a pass," he said. "If they caused it within 1,400 feet of their wells, it's plausible they caused it within 1,600 feet."
Walker, whose knees are hobbled from working in mines, said he heard how a sinkhole swallowed a Seffner man in late February, but he doesn't worry that the same thing will happen to him.
"I'm not too worried about it. Some people from the county came out and looked at it," he said, referring to the sinkhole.
Instead, he wants to be compensated to either fix his house or buy another one.
"I don't know if it can be fixed. The whole thing has to be jacked up," he said. "Every room is cracked."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.