HUDSON – The barricades are 103 paces apart. The area inside contains more than 70 sinkholes and ground anomalies, six houses and immeasurable stress.
This is Willow Brook Court in the Lakeside Woodlands neighborhood in Hudson. It gained notoriety in August when large holes opened within the drainage retention area on the street’s south side. Almost six months later, the holes remain, newly installed chain link fencing surrounds the low-lying drainage site and “Road closed’’ barricades sit along the street, prohibiting traffic.
The road is unsafe for travel, according to Pasco County, after multiple engineering tests showed additional anomalies beneath the street’s surface. Fixing it is out of the question, even if the street looks passable to the naked eye.
“Reinforcing it puts the road in more jeopardy of collapse,’’ said Andrew Fossa, Pasco’s emergency management director. “It’s not worth the gamble.’’
The barricades keep out the trash haulers, school buses and delivery trucks. But the prohibited vehicles also include the cars and trucks driven by owners of the six homes quarantined inside. They can’t get to their own driveways. Stocking the fridge means using a wheel barrow or wagon to haul groceries from vehicle to house. Taking out the garbage means wheeling the cans approximately 50 yards for some people.
"We’re stuck with it,'' said Tom Murray of 7805 Willow Brook Court, the midpoint of the closed road. “What a stress it puts on people.”
"They,'' he said, pointing to a neighboring home occupied by two elderly women, "are terrified.''
Terrified because they worry about more sinkholes opening in an area that was built atop an underground collection of caves. The sinkhole-riddled retention area is owned by the homeowners’ association.
It’s one of the dilemmas. The county is responsible for the road right-of-way, but everything else is private property. So who pays for what?
Murray, 74, and his wife, Mary Jane, own one of the first homes built on the block. They came from Wisconsin in 1981 and Tom worked 30 years at Pall Aeropower Corp. before retiring in 2011. When they moved in, the lots across the street were a heavily wooded forest. Now they confront an isolation of a different kind.
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"If you had a heart attack what would happen now? How long would the delay be?'' he asked.
The county has taken that into consideration and accounted for the road barriers in its emergency dispatch system, said Pasco Fire Rescue Chief Tim Reardon. The county couldn’t use an aerial fire truck if there is a house fire on the block, he said, but the single-story homes likely wouldn’t require that large apparatus.
The comments from Fossa, Reardon and other county officials came last week during a town hall meeting with about 25 people from the Lakeside Woodlands at the county’s Emergency Operations Center. Neighbors didn’t find the message particularly soothing.
“You’re not in imminent danger. Your house isn’t falling into the hole,’’ said Laura Wilcoxen, assistant director of emergency management.
“Not yet,’’ said Barbara Geren of 7803 Willow Brook Court.
The county outlined potential grant opportunities for remediation, but acknowledged they are a long-shot. One federal program would require documenting that damage was attributable to Hurricane Irma in 2017.
"It is a loose claim, but it is something we’re trying for,'' said Wilcoxen.
But even if the area can land Federal Emergency Management Agency aid, the numbers aren’t attractive. The county believes that 15 properties — 14 homes and an empty lot — could qualify for assistance, but homeowners would have to pay 25 percent of both the buy-out and the demolition costs. In round figures, it means a home valued at $100,000, with $50,000 added for engineering and demolition, would net a payout to the homeowner of just $62,000.
"The deal stinks,'' said Lou Johnson of 7812 Willow Brook Court, the first house outside the barricade on the street’s southwest side. "I can’t replace my house for that. I can’t even put a trailer in a trailer park for that.''
The average appraised value of the properties is just less than $146,000, so a more typical buy-out will net a homeowner $97,000 for a home valued at $146,000. The total value of all 15 properties is nearly $2.2 million.
"This is the least attractive alternative,'' admitted Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano. "We don’t have the funds to take over everyone’s property.''
He said he planned to seek help from the governor’s office or state insurance regulators.
Some of the residents blame Pasco County for allowing home building in a sinkhole-prone location. The neighborhood’s early 1980s development, however, pre-dates mapping of the Hudson cave system which was done in 2002, said Fossa.
"You can’t hold the county responsible for something that didn’t exist in 1984,'' he said.
For now, residents have until Feb. 28 to decide if they want to be part of the upcoming grant application. Murray and Johnson said they’ve both eaten out-of-pocket expenses already: $1,000 for Johnson’s ruptured water and irrigation pipes and more than $9,000 for a 15-foot sinkhole in Murray’s front yard that took out his sewer line.
Johnson’s wife, Pat, shared a story about pulling weeds in her front yard when a bicyclist rode by and snidely asked, "Why bother?''
"This is my home,'' she answered.
"We could stay. We could put up with this,'' said Murray, "but sooner or later, it’s going to get worse here.''