DUNEDIN — When Virginia Rodriguez bought her $277,000 condo on the waterfront in 2005, she thought it was a solid investment.
Then she saw the cracks. They were wide enough to fit a finger, snaking up from the first floor of her building and stair-stepping around her third-floor windowsill. Neighbors told Rodriguez their theory: the building sits on a sinkhole.
"I can't just sell it knowing there might be a problem. ... I wouldn't want to see anyone get hurt," said Rodriguez, 62. She took the condo off the market. "I wouldn't live there. I'm too big of a chicken."
The Royal Stewart Arms condo association board that runs Rodriguez's 48-unit Dunoon building, citing a study it commissioned through its insurance agency, said no sinkhole exists.
"You can't have sinkholes on an island," said board administrator Joseph "Bucky" Maisto, 72, who manages the building. "Even if we had a sinkhole, the way the building is constructed" — a solid slab, Maisto said, pinned with pilings into the bedrock — "it wouldn't affect the building. It would take a major sinkhole, something the size of Yankee Stadium, to knock this building over."
Some others disagree. Hydrogeologist Sandy Nettles said site surveys showed a "pretty nasty" sinkhole underground that would need hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs before the settling worsens.
Some condo owners accuse the board of covering up the sinkhole by painting over cracks and discrediting reports of damage. They say the board, faced with a crumbling image and costly repairs, has chosen instead to hide from the consequences.
"They're trying to protect the unit. If people hear of a sinkhole, they'll get scared, and they're worried these things won't have value," said resident Mick Mroz. They think "it's better they just stay away from the problem."
In 2006, city records show, a code inspector issued a violation to the board after finding "sinkhole voids," "major wall cracks" and 2-inch gaps forcing doors out of plumb at Dunoon.
The board's insurance company hired SDII Global Corporation to review the building's foundation using the work of three local subcontractors. Investigators mapped the underlying soil with three test borings and ground-penetrating radar.
Maisto said SDII's conclusion, based on that data, was that the mysterious settling was caused by the underground leak of a 2- to 3-inch water main, plugged more than a decade ago.
"They did testing that I didn't even know existed, with water tubes, models, seismographs ... and said there was no evidence of a sinkhole," Maisto said. "We put it to bed at that point."
Mroz, who lives on Dunoon's ground floor, didn't think that made much sense. Why, he asked, would a 10-year-old leak still cause problems? He asked Nettles, the president of Palm Harbor hydrogeology firm N.S. Nettles and Associates, to review the maps.
"I looked at the borings and in 30 seconds I knew what it was. It was that obvious," Nettles said. "The three borings clearly show a sinkhole, about 15 to 20 feet of collapsing soil. … The limestone's dissolving, and all the sand and stone on top are sagging into the void."
Nettles, in a 2007 letter to the board, wrote that the investigation seemed critically flawed. The test drilling, he wrote, stopped short of hard limestone, where deterioration would be most evident. A leaking pipe wouldn't cause the porous "ravel zones" and dissolved rock shown in the boring logs. And the ground-penetrating radar used at the coastal site, he wrote, can't record through salt water, making the readings "totally useless."
"The conclusions … are unsupported by their data," Nettles wrote. "I recommend further testing." Nettles estimated crews would need to drill metal or concrete pilings deep into the thick limestone below the surface to stabilize the building — work he estimated could cost around half a million dollars.
Maisto said he all but ignored Nettles' opinion. "I could not put any stock in what he said," Maisto said.
Maisto, according to one woman who has done work in the Dunoon building for about four years, also tried to undermine Mroz.
"They keep telling everybody that Mick was lying about a sinkhole and making trouble. They said, 'Don't go near him, he's dangerous,' " said Rosemary Hanlon, who has helped her sister Sheila Stack with extensive repairs on her first-floor condo. "These guys are unbelievable. They are a piece of work. They do all this damage control. … That's the kind of crap going on there — real intimidation."
Nettles and Mroz weren't the only ones to say they saw holes in the data. Geohazards Inc., a Gainesville-based firm Maisto said the board was "very happy" to see hired, wrote a report in 2007 calling the SDII investigators' performance "puzzling."
The report, written by geophysicist Douglas Smith and geologist Anthony Randazzo, said engineers failed to conduct tests like hand auger borings, pit excavations or a floor elevation survey that could have discovered problems. The engineers' findings did not support a leaking pipe, but rather "raveling," a sign of a forming sinkhole.
"Sinkhole activity," they wrote, "must be considered a source of distress at the property."
Maisto said he "never saw that report," though it was included in SDII's site review.
In a summary of the contractors' findings, SDII senior principal geologist Sam Upchurch defended its investigation by saying the location of the limestone and the limited weak zones found in the borings clearly showed there was nothing "suggestive of sinkhole activity." The opinions from Nettles and Geohazards, he wrote, "seem to us to be a stretch."
Upchurch, in an e-mail this week, said he would not talk about the project "at the request of counsel." Larry Brown, the president of BTL Engineering, which conducted the boring tests, said the Nettles and Geohazards reports were "their opinion."
Maisto said he has been cordial with Mroz, even inviting him to dinner, though Mroz has been "very difficult" over the four years since the city's first citation of sinkhole damage.
"I can't argue with him. If it were my house and I thought there was something wrong, I would certainly be persistent," Maisto said. "However, when you put in front of me that two plus two equals four, and my teacher says this is the answer, I just have to shut my mouth."
Units still sell
A building threatened by a sinkhole is typically inspected by a code official to determine whether it needs to be evacuated, said city engineer Tom Burke. If the building is safe, the owners or association are asked to run tests and, if there is a sinkhole, claim it with insurance. The record of that settlement stays with the property, and agents must disclose its history.
But Dunoon has no such settlement. In 2007, after receiving the condo board's subsurface report blaming a leak, the city closed its violation. In June, city building code administrator Rick Johnson wrote to Mroz that, "due to continued movement" of the floors and wall of his condo, "further subterranean investigation is warranted."
Maisto said the units are not in danger, and that three units have sold since April, including a first-floor condo to a St. Petersburg construction contractor. Just to be sure, he said, the board's QBE insurers have paid for Central Florida Testing Laboratories to review the site next month.
Maisto said the Dunoon's QBE insurance covers sinkhole damage with a $10,000 deductible up to "a considerable amount," though it wouldn't cover a total rebuild.
Maisto, whose wife, Joann Masserini, serves as president of the five-member board, disagrees with residents' claims of a cover-up. "We do not hold back on anything," Maisto said, when told of residents' complaints that they were painting over cracks to conceal them. "I don't care if someone calls and tells us there's a cinder block out of place, we'll fix it."
Condos at Dunoon, one of Royal Stewart Arms' seven buildings between Honeymoon Island and the Dunedin mainland, sold during the housing bubble for up to $300,000, property records show. They crashed in recent years with the market bust. At least three of Dunoon's condos are now listed for around $150,000.
One broker, Mark Naedel with the Alexandros Real Estate Group in Largo, said he would appraise them lower than that. A Dunedin native, he said he has seen the Dunoon cracks worsen over the years. "I can't list this property for sale," Naedel said. "Nobody wants to take the responsibility. What happens if someone gets hurt?"
Times staff photographer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report. Contact Drew Harwell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.