Developer never disclosed remediated landfill beneath homes


Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune

By Shannon Behnken

Published October 29, 2011

When Merv and Cheryl Herman moved into the master-planned community of Suncoast Meadows in 2006, they say they noticed monitoring wells scattered along the streets but had no idea what they were.

Now they and their Pasco County neighbors have learned some of their homes were built over an old landfill. The wells test for ammonia and methane gas and, from time to time, show methane readings some experts say are high enough to risk an explosion.

Even though the land was cleared of debris, the developer, one of the nation's largest homebuilders, never disclosed to buyers that their homes were built on top of a former landfill.

"I'm furious," Merv Herman said. "I would have never bought a home here if I knew this. My house has no value. It cannot be sold. Nobody in their right mind would buy my house."

Suncoast Meadows, with about 480 homes, was built during the housing boom, a time when builders salivated over large 

tracks of open land. Before it ever dug for a home, the developer, Miami-based Lennar Homes, discovered a landfill on part of the property and asked the state how to fix the problem. The land was to be remediated, and no homes were planned for that area.

The landfill was mentioned in a brief statement tucked inside manuals provided to homeowners at closing. But years into construction on the neighborhood, the builder discovered the landfill was bigger than it realized, and it stretched into an area slated for about 50 homes. Lennar dug up the junk and buried it under what is now a soccer field and neighborhood park.

That part wasn't spelled out to buyers.

A Lennar spokesman told The Tampa Tribune the company did not feel there was a need to explain this. Lennar released this statement about the home sites:

"That area was cleared of debris and replaced with clean backfill material. No additional disclosures were made because debris no longer existed there."

Residents say they feel wronged. They worry about their health and property values. Some say the soil on the sites near the old landfill sometime stinks.

"That area gets swampy, so the water stays in there and the vapors come out, and especially after a heavy rain, it can smell really rank," said Frieda Hadsock, who lives across the street from the pool, where the highest levels of ammonia and methane have shown up.

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The big question is whether the builder was legally or morally obligated to tell buyers about the junk that used to sit under their home sites.

David Rankin, a lawyer for the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors, said the Florida Supreme Court in 1985 ruled that anything that could adversely affect the value of a home must be disclosed to buyers.

That decision was specifically about homeowners selling their homes. But Rankin said he thinks builders should play by the same rules.

"Most attorneys would say this could be a misrepresentation because the land wasn't worth nearly as much with the former landfill as it would be without it," Rankin said. "Now whether the disclosure [Lennar] did give was sufficient, that's something a judge would have to determine."

Lennar developed Suncoast Meadows, built houses and sold lots to another builder. State records show Lennar asked for advice from the state Department of Environmental Protection when it discovered the landfill on about 12 acres. No homes were built on that portion of the property.

The department advised the builder to remove the junk and clean up the area. Lennar installed a pool and cabana on that part of the property. Any junk under the area where the soccer field is was to remain.

Lennar said it notified the DEP when it found more trash on about six additional acres where it planned to build homes. The builder said it waited months, and when it didn't hear back from DEP, it buried the junk.

By the time DEP called to discuss the plans nine months later, the material, including tires, glass and other trash, had been moved.

DEP spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said it's unclear when the state learned of the trash under the home sites, but she's not aware of objections from the state.

The state did ask Lennar to install wells to monitor methane gas and ammonia in groundwater. Lennar periodically sends readings from those wells to DEP.

Lennar hired HSA Engineers & Scientists to study the site.

In November 2010, the state wrote a letter to Lennar saying it had concerns about the reading and asking for more information.

Excessive levels of ammonia have sometimes been found in the groundwater tested in the neighborhood, but Steven Folsom, of HSA, said that's not a health concern, as long as no one drinks the water.

"Everyone in that area is on potable water, essentially eliminating the risk," Folsom said.

The state agrees, Gibbs said, but still doesn't want the groundwater contaminated "because it could travel to other areas."

However, Gibbs said, since some ammonia and methane occur naturally, more tests are required to determine whether the readings are coming from the landfill or nearby wetlands.

The state report last November said, "Methane Gas continues to exceed the 100 percent lower explosive limit in monitoring wells located east and south of the pool cabana area on the former landfill location."

That's enough to risk an explosion, said Ray Yeakley, spokesman for Hillsborough County Fire and Rescue.

"I'm not saying someone is going to walk by, light a cigarette and cause a fire, but the risk is there during those times the levels of methane are higher," Yeakley said.

Lennar tested air inside 20 homes, and Folsom, from the engineering science firm, said elevated levels of methane and ammonia are not finding their way into homes.

Lennar also said it tested the gases near the surface and found no levels high enough to pose a risk to people.

"Lennar has voluntarily conducted extensive environmental testing at Suncoast Meadows above and beyond that requested by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection," Lennar said in a statement.

Lennar plans to continue to monitor for ammonia and to send new readings to the state in December.

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Meanwhile, Greg Armstrong, a Pasco County real estate agent, said anyone selling a home in the neighborhood, should disclose the former landfill.

Like most every Tampa Bay area neighborhood, home values in Suncoast Meadows were hurt by the housing bust. But the landfill disclosure, Armstrong said, could bring values down even more.

"It's just like a sinkhole," Armstrong said. "Bad news never sells good."

Herman said he blames Lennar, the land developer, for not disclosing the landfill. But he also questions why the builder that constructed his home didn't mention it either.

Herman's home was built by Windward Homes, which is now K. Hovnanian Homes.

George Schulmeyer, Hovnanian's Tampa division president, wouldn't say when his company learned about the former landfill beneath home sites it purchased from Lennar.

"We don't comment on any matter about anything we did or didn't do in the past," Schulmeyer said. He said his company bears no responsibility and urged homeowners to contact Lennar.

As for Herman, he just wants out of Suncoast Meadows. He purchased his home in 2006 for $235,700. It's listed now for $119,000.

He said his lawyer advised him to disclose the landfill in his home listing. He did, and says he hasn't heard from a single potential buyer.

"Once I have all this information, I have to disclose it," Herman said. "That's why I'm complaining that the builders didn't disclose it."