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Pasco ponders sinkhole fixes in Land O'Lakes

DADE CITY — A massive sinkhole that swallowed two homes and left seven houses condemned in a Land O'Lakes neighborhood is now posing a potential financial drain as Pasco County ponders how to fix the crater.

On Tuesday, during a workshop, county commissioners considered options for what to do with the cavity, originally measuring 230 feet wide and 50 feet deep, which opened July 14 on Ocean Pine Drive in the Lake Padgett Estates neighborhood.

The hole is now about 10 feet deep, said Kevin Guthrie, assistant county administrator for public safety, because of the debris and soil that filled in the opening, and it resembles a retention pond.

But at its bottom sit two houses, a car, a motorcycle and other debris.

"What? We're not getting it out?'' asked Commissioner Kathryn Starkey.

Doing so and restoring the site to pristine condition, possibly to be used as a park with passive recreation, could cost up to $12 million. Commissioners quickly dismissed that idea as too costly.

Among the other options:

• Buy at least two of the condemned houses and connect the hole to nearby Lake Saxon. Estimated cost: $800,000. Adding two cul-de-sacs to maintain traffic flow and allow public safety vehicles easy access to the street would add $1.7 million because it would require the county to buy additional houses.

• Build a bridge over the sinkhole to allow continued use of the street at an estimated cost of $4 million.

• Leave Ocean Pine Drive as is and erect a permanent decorative fence around the properties to prevent trespassing and close off the street to all through traffic. The cost of that option would be approximately $50,000.

• 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

"You'd have water to the right, water to the left, and you'd drive the road right through it,'' Guthrie told commissioners.

Commissioners panned the bridge idea as too expensive and promised to seek community input before a final decision is made. That needs to happen, in part, because the existing Lake Padgett Estates special taxing district could be asked to take ownership of the site.

The taxing district, which finances park operations within the community, is planning to hire an attorney with sinkhole expertise to evaluate the options "and decide whether or not the district has any in interest in acquiring ownership of the property,'' Land O'Lakes lawyer Tim Hayes, who represents the district, said prior to the meeting.

He said the district's board members previously expressed concern about potential pollution seeping into Lake Saxon, whether the sinkhole is stabilized permanently, potential liability if there is further sinkhole activity, and whether the district can legally take the property since it presents no recreational benefit.

The state law creating the special taxing district requires it to manage the community's parks for recreational use. Currently, 1,045 property owners in Lake Padgett Estates are assessed $555 annually by the district.

Starkey said erecting a fence and leaving the hole alone would be problematic.

"Why can't you turn this lemon into lemonade and maybe make it something for the community like fishing?'' she asked. "Make it an asset, not a liability.''

Commission Chairman Mike Moore repeated the neighborhood concerns about connecting the hole to Lake Saxon because of feared contaminants.

"It cannot be detrimental to the water quality of that lake,'' Moore said.

Guthrie said data from the county Utilities Department indicated the water in the sinkhole now is of a higher quality than water samples taken from Lake Saxon.

The University of South Florida has recommended that the county hire G3 Group of Odessa for $15,000 to obtain subterranean images to try to figure out how Lake Saxon interacts with the surrounding underground. Commissioners didn't act on that suggestion, but Guthrie said more thorough geo-technical studies would have to be completed before any restoration work could begin.

To date, the county has spent roughly $800,000 at the sinkhole site and has retained its own private attorney, with sinkhole claim experience, to investigate whether the homeowners' insurance companies could be responsible for some of those expenses.

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