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Muddied neighborhood seeks answer to disappearing canal

It was one of the biggest weather-related disasters in Pasco County last year.

On Sept. 22, a rain-swollen canal in Land O'Lakes burst its berm and flooded more than 30 homes in the Lake Padgett Estates East neighborhood.

Eleven months later, the opposite problem prevails. The absence of a permanent berm has allowed water to flow downstream more or less unimpeded.

The result has been dire for about 60 homeowners on Brighton Place, Clearwater Place and Longshore Drive, whose waterfront lots behind the old berm are now starting to look like mudfront lots.

Water levels have dropped about 8 feet since last year's flood, said Stephen Ford, an administrator with the Lake Padgett Estates East homeowners' association.

Cypress trees show bare roots for the first time in more than a decade. Neighbors dock their boats for want of sufficiently deep water. The fish population appears to be thinning.

Some homeowners aren't happy. Vincent Leisner and Dave Laing, longtime neighbors on Brighton Place whose lots back up to the shrinking canal, fear the value of their lots has dipped along with the water.

"You pay more for a lot that's waterfront," Leisner said. "They should have to keep it waterfront."

Deciding who "they" are has been the source of controversy for the past 11 months.

The Lake Padgett East homeowners association insists that Pasco County bought the rights to the berm when it took control of roads and bridges in the neighborhood in 1988.

The county's answer to neighbors has been consistent: The berm and the associated drainage headaches are your problem.

But after months of fruitless meetings, the two sides are coming together to pursue a potential solution: soliciting an estimated $200,000 from the Southwest Florida Water Management District for a new concrete dam to hold the water.

"This is the first solution we've found that we can agree on," said Betty Valenti, executive director of the homeowners association.

But they still must get Swiftmud to agree. And the signs so far don't look promising.

"It had been our understanding the county was taking the lead in putting the berm back in," Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan said Tuesday.

And Molligan said he has never heard of his agency giving so much money directly to neighborhoods without a county or town pitching in half the project cost.

"That's not to say it's never been done," Molligan said. "But I'm not aware of anything.'

Troubles began last September when heavy rains destroyed the earthen berm, sending torrents of water and debris into homes on Dover Drive, Orleans Loop and Parkway Boulevard.

The water soaked carpets and furniture in many of the homes and turned swimming pools brown with mud. Some of the homes, which had not been directly on the canals, were not insured for flood damage.

One benefit of the berm's disintegration is that flooding no longer appears to be a threat, Ford said. But the receding water threatens not only property values, but also two old stands of cypress trees, he said.

"If I were a private landowner who killed cypress trees, they'd put me in jail," Ford said. "But when the county does it, nothing happens."

Molligan disagrees. If the county or the homeowners association fails to build a more permanent berm, they risk running afoul of Swiftmud's desire to protect the threatened wetlands.

"We will research the issue and determine who's responsible," Molligan said.

JoEllyn Miller, the county's engineer in charge of stormwater management, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Neither could Bipin Parikh, an assistant county administrator in charge of engineering.