Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Plant City homeowner sues nursery over 2010 sinkhole

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 or (813) 661-2454.

Plant City homeowner sues nursery over 2010 sinkhole 06/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 4:44pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. In this Dec. 4, 2016, file photo, Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the third hole during the final round at the Hero World Challenge golf tournament in Nassau, Bahamas. Woods has been arrested on a drunken driving charge in Palm Beach County , various media outlets are reporting. [AP photo]
  2. Tiger Woods arrested on DUI charge in Florida

    Public Safety

    Tiger Woods was arrested on a DUI charge Monday in Jupiter, according to the Palm Beach County sheriff's office.

    Tiger Woods has been arrested on a DUI charge in Florida.
  3. Boy, 9, hospitalized after shooting in St. Petersburg


    ST. PETERSBURG — A 9-year-old boy was injured Monday morning in a shooting in the 2300 block of 17th Ave S, police said.

    A juvenile was injured in a shooting Monday morning in the 2300 block of 17th Ave S in St. Petersburg. (Zachary Sampson, Tampa Bay Times)
  4. Big rents and changing tastes drive dives off St. Pete's 600 block

    Music & Concerts

    ST. PETERSBURG — Kendra Marolf was behind the lobby bar of the State Theatre, pouring vodka sodas for a weeknight crowd packed tight for Bishop Briggs, the latest alternative artist to sell out her club.

    Sam Picciano, 25, left, of Tampa and Molly Cord 24, Palm Harbor shop for record albums for a friend at Daddy Kool Records located on the 600 block of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, Florida on Saturday, May 20, 2017. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times
  5. How Hollywood is giving its biggest stars digital facelifts


    LOS ANGELES — Johnny Depp is 53 years old but he doesn't look a day over 26 in the new "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie — at least for a few moments. There was no plastic surgeon involved, heavy makeup or archival footage used to take the actor back to his boyish "Cry Baby" face, however. It's all …

    This combination of photos released by Disney, shows the character Jack Sparrow at two stages of his life in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales."  Johnny Depp, who portrays the character, is the latest mega-star to get the drastic de-aging treatment on screen
[Disney via Associated Press]