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Pasco sinkhole debate: How much? Who pays?

LAND O'LAKES — They came armed with questions, but left without answers to the biggest unknowns.

How much will this cost?

And who's going to pay?

More than 145 people filled a Land O'Lakes Community Center meeting room Saturday afternoon to try to find out how Pasco County might repair a massive sinkhole in the Lake Padgett Estates neighborhood. The cavity, originally estimated at 230 feet wide and 50 feet deep, swallowed two homes and left seven more uninhabitable after it opened July 14 on Ocean Pines Drive.

Pasco commissioners already panned two ideas as too expensive. Grouting the hole and restoring the site to its previous condition for use as a passive recreation park carried an estimated price tag of $8 million to $12 million, and building a bridge over the sinkhole could cost up to $4 million.

That left the public with fewer options to consider, including leaving Ocean Pines Drive closed and installing a $50,000 decorative fence around the unrepaired hole or buying at least two condemned houses and connecting the hole to nearby Lake Saxon at a cost of $800,000. However, the county, under that option, also must build two cul-de-sacs to maintain traffic flow, adding an additional expense of $1.7 million.

Lastly, the county could install sheet metal pilings on both sides of Ocean Pine Drive, effectively damming the sinkhole water and rebuilding the residential street between the pilings. The estimated cost of that is $800,000

"The county is responsible for the road, therefore the county fixes the road. It's the cheapest, most obvious and most beneficial,'' Charlie Venator, who lives on Ocean Piines Drive, nine houses from the sinkhole, said of the last option.

Kevin Guthrie, assistant county administrator for public safety, initially said he intended to poll the audience on its preference, but retreated from that idea after speakers said they needed more information.

"I am being ambiguous,'' Guthrie said, "because I don't know.''

Among the audience questions aimed at Guthrie: Is there a timeline for a fix? Are the affected homeowners cooperating? Why is the most expensive option off the table? Is grant funding available? How much liability is the county going to take? Shouldn't landlords be required to notify tenants if rental property contains an unrepaired sinkhole? And, most notably, how can we tell you our preference for a repair when we have so few facts?

"I question the wisdom of putting us on the spot,'' said Diane Clark, who owns home on Panther Way. "We're operating in a sea of ignorance for all of us.''

Guthrie said more geo-technical studies must be completed before the county can determine the viability of the potential repairs. He also promised a future community meeting, possibly in January, after that information is available.

The county invited to the meeting all of the 1,045 property owners in the Lake Padgett Estates special taxing district. However, at least one resident suggested the decision should be more localized.

"I would not presume to decide something for the people on Ocean Pines,'' said Barbara Spencer, who said she lived about a 1.5 miles from the sinkhole.

In answering audience inquiries, Guthrie said he had asked both state and federal representatives to consider legislation requiring landlords to disclose sinkholes to renters, much like they must do with flood risks. The county does not yet have a timeline for a potential fix, he said, and cannot seek financial assistance from the state because it doesn't yet know the preferred option or cost. He also pointed out that the county's participation is limited.

"We have a responsibility to rebuild that road,'' he said, but the county is not responsible for repairs on private property. He also said the county currently has reports of about a dozen other active sinkholes around Pasco, all on private property.

"If we spend one taxpayer dollar on (private property in) Lake Padgett Estates,'' Guthrie said, "then we have to do all of them.''