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Study to assess risk of sinkholes

Remember that hole that opened up in your back yard when you were just a kid? Or maybe it happened more recently - a sinkhole gulping down chunks of earth and grass. If you remember any sinkholes that have occurred in the past 50 years, county officials want to know.

To help in planning future development, the county has hired the Florida Sinkhole Research Institute at the University of Central Florida to analyze the risk of sinkholes occurring in different areas of the county.

"In our case, (sinkholes) have been very isolated, but we just want to try to get a handle on them," said County Administrator Fred Marquis.

To do that, researchers at the sinkhole institute need residents' help. Researchers analyze how often sinkholes have occurred in an area to figure out the probability that sinkholes will occur there again.

"This is why it's so important that we obtain the cooperation of the local residents of the county," said Barry Beck, director of the sinkhole institute. "Only with a very thorough record of the sinkholes that have formed in recent times can we have enough information to plot out a valid picture of which areas tend to have sinkholes and which areas don't."

Beck said it's especially important for residents to report sinkholes that may have gone unreported because they didn't cause any damage. Researchers already have compiled a list of many sinkholes that caused damage, through newspaper reports, insurance companies, aerial photographs, engineers and government officials.

Pinellas is the first county to conduct a sinkhole survey to help plan development, Beck said.

County Administrator Marquis said the information won't be used to ban development in any area. But it may be used to ensure that development is safe.

For instance, in an area prone to sinkholes, county officials may require soil samples before building permits are issued, he said. Or foundations that can withstand some sinkholes may be required in certain areas.

Beck explained, "If say 90 percent (of sinkholes in an area) are less than 15 feet across, then engineers can design a foundation that will span a 15-foot hole so the house rather than creaking and breaking and falling in the hole will simply hang there like a bridge while repairs are made."

Residents may report sinkholes to the county at 462-3665 until March 31. After March 31, reports can be made to the sinkhole institute at 407-281-5644.