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Residents worry as sinkholes dot Hernando

Louise Martens thought she was safe. For the past week, she and her husband had been hearing about the sinkholes along Mariner Boulevard in Spring Hill, known as "The Swiss Cheese Neighborhood."

The Martenses, who live about 5 miles to the west, weren't worried. Sinkholes had never been a problem in their neighborhood, a retirement community called Timber Pines where they have lived for 17 years.

That changed Monday.

"We're very concerned," said Martens, turning away from a 16-foot-wide sinkhole under her neighbor's house. "How far does it go?"

The sinkhole hot spots appears to be spreading, sending a new flurry of panic about safety and property values. Never before have so many sinkholes appeared at once in Hernando County.

"I won't be able to sleep tonight," said Eleanor Marcelli, 81, who lives in Timber Pines. "I feel like crying."

The office of Hernando County Emergency Management is being deluged by calls _ many of them from people reporting even the smallest dip in their lawn. Although most end up being false alarms, emergency director Bill Appleby said he would rather have his staff check them out than risk the public's safety.

"It's very unstable out there," Appleby said. "Some people are . . . overreacting, but we would rather go out there and give them some peace of mind than have them sit and worry about it."

The sinkhole in Timber Pines opened up just a few feet from where workers were drilling a water well. Officials immediately condemned the house, owned by Marge Smeeding, who is visiting family in Buffalo.

It is not the first sinkhole to ever appear in Timber Pines.

But before Monday, most of the recent sinkholes _ 24 in all, with reports of more still coming in _ had been limited to a stretch of Mariner Boulevard. A segment had to be closed to traffic for ground surveys and repairs. Part of the road remains closed, and two homes in the area have been evacuated.

Hernando County officials acknowledged that the Timber Pines sinkhole demonstrates what they have known all along.

"It could happen anywhere," said county spokeswoman Brenda Frazier.

A sinkhole also has opened up on the far east side of the county in Ridge Manor, where sinkholes are much more rare because the clay is thicker. Another was reported at 7 p.m. Monday, north of the Mariner cluster in an area known as High Point.

"I'm not even keeping track anymore," said Grant Tolbert, Hernando County development director. "I just go from one to the other."

Hernando County has always been prone to sinkholes because of a thin layer of clay in the ground, worn down millions of years ago by the ebb and flow of seas. Moving west through Spring Hill, the clay thins. The thinner the layer, the more likely a sinkhole will occur.

Officials say this year has been particularly bad because of the drought.

When a long period of dryness is followed by a heavy rain, the ground acts like a sponge, swelling, shifting and in some cases caving in. That's what started happening last week after parts of the county received 4{ inches of rain in one day.

Drilling also can increase risks, studies show.

Some homeowners fault poor drainage. The largest of all the recent sinkholes, measuring 60-feet wide and at least 70-feet deep along Mariner, is in a large retention ditch.

Today, workers will begin paving over the sinkholes on Mariner Boulevard, which already have been filled. At the earliest, the road will reopen Wednesday.

County officials also hope to have approval from the Southwest Florida Water Management District to begin filling other holes.

That permit was held up when the county suggested filling them with sand, a less expensive alternative to what was used to fill sinkholes last year _ a combination of sand, clay and stone.

In the meantime, Spring Hill residents are keeping a close watch on their homes _ and their step.

"I looked over and saw the ground just slowly sinking," said Steve Stevens, who witnessed the sinkhole develop next door at the Timber Pines house when he walked outside his house Monday afternoon. "It just disappeared right down."

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