Article Courtesy of St. Petersburg
August 22, 2010
When Virginia Rodriguez bought her $277,000 condo on the waterfront in
2005, she thought it was a solid investment.
|Then she saw the cracks.
They were wide enough to fit a finger, snaking up from the
first floor of her building and stair-stepping around her
third-floor windowsill. Neighbors told Rodriguez their
theory: the building sits on a sinkhole.
"I can't just sell it knowing
there might be a problem. ... I wouldn't want to see
anyone get hurt," said Rodriguez, 62. She took the
condo off the market. "I wouldn't live there. I'm too
big of a chicken."
The Royal Stewart Arms condo
association board that runs Rodriguez's 48-unit Dunoon
building, citing a study it commissioned through its
insurance agency, said no sinkhole exists.
building manager Joseph Bucky Maisto and wife Joann Masserini,
condo board president, say there is no cover-up.
can't have sinkholes on an island," said board administrator Joseph
"Bucky" Maisto, 72, who manages the building. "Even if we had
a sinkhole, the way the building is constructed" a solid slab,
Maisto said, pinned with pilings into the bedrock "it wouldn't
affect the building. It would take a major sinkhole, something the size of
Yankee Stadium, to knock this building over."
|Some others disagree.
Hydrogeologist Sandy Nettles said site surveys showed a
"pretty nasty" sinkhole underground that would
need hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs before the
Some condo owners accuse the board of
covering up the sinkhole by painting over cracks and
discrediting reports of damage. They say the board, faced
with a crumbling image and costly repairs, has chosen
instead to hide from the consequences.
"They're trying to protect the
unit. If people hear of a sinkhole, they'll get scared, and
they're worried these things won't have value," said
resident Mick Mroz. They think "it's better they just
stay away from the problem."
In 2006, city records show, a code
inspector issued a violation to the board after finding
"sinkhole voids," "major wall cracks"
and 2-inch gaps forcing doors out of plumb at Dunoon.
The board's insurance company hired
SDII Global Corporation to review the building's foundation
using the work of three local subcontractors. Investigators
mapped the underlying soil with three test borings and
Maisto said SDII's conclusion, based
on that data, was that the mysterious settling was caused by
the underground leak of a 2- to 3-inch water main, plugged
more than a decade ago.
"They did testing that I
didn't even know existed, with water tubes, models,
seismographs ... and said there was no evidence of a
sinkhole," Maisto said. "We put it to bed at that
stains and patched drywall can are evident in Unit 109 of the Dunoon
building on Wednesday.
who lives on Dunoon's ground floor, didn't think that made much sense. Why,
he asked, would a 10-year-old leak still cause problems? He asked Nettles,
the president of Palm Harbor hydrogeology firm N.S. Nettles and Associates,
to review the maps.
|"I looked at the borings
and in 30 seconds I knew what it was. It was that obvious,"
Nettles said. "The three borings clearly show a sinkhole,
about 15 to 20 feet of collapsing soil.
dissolving, and all the sand and stone on top are sagging into
Nettles, in a 2007 letter to the board,
wrote that the investigation seemed critically flawed. The test
drilling, he wrote, stopped short of hard limestone, where
deterioration would be most evident. A leaking pipe wouldn't
cause the porous "ravel zones" and dissolved rock
shown in the boring logs. And the ground-penetrating radar used
at the coastal site, he wrote, can't record through salt water,
making the readings "totally useless."
by their data," Nettles wrote. "I recommend further
testing." Nettles estimated crews would need to drill metal
or concrete pilings deep into the thick limestone below the
surface to stabilize the building work he estimated could
cost around half a million dollars.
Maisto said he all but ignored Nettles'
opinion. "I could not put any stock in what he said,"
Maisto, according to one woman who has
done work in the Dunoon building for about four years, also
tried to undermine Mroz.
network of cracks in brick and mortar can be seen on the west end of the
Dunoon building, ensnared in a dispute over the prospect of sinkholes.
"They keep telling everybody that
Mick was lying about a sinkhole and making trouble. They said, 'Don't go
near him, he's dangerous,' " said Rosemary Hanlon, who has helped her
sister Sheila Stack with extensive repairs on her first-floor condo.
"These guys are unbelievable. They are a piece of work. They do all
this damage control.
That's the kind of crap going on there real
Nettles and Mroz weren't the only ones to
say they saw holes in the data. Geohazards Inc., a Gainesville-based firm
Maisto said the board was "very happy" to see hired, wrote a
report in 2007 calling the SDII investigators' performance
The report, written by geophysicist
Douglas Smith and geologist Anthony Randazzo, said engineers failed to
conduct tests like hand auger borings, pit excavations or a floor elevation
survey that could have discovered problems. The engineers' findings did not
support a leaking pipe, but rather "raveling," a sign of a forming
"Sinkhole activity," they
wrote, "must be considered a source of distress at the property."
Maisto said he "never saw that
report," though it was included in SDII's site review.
In a summary of the contractors'
findings, SDII senior principal geologist Sam Upchurch defended its
investigation by saying the location of the limestone and the limited weak
zones found in the borings clearly showed there was nothing "suggestive
of sinkhole activity." The opinions from Nettles and Geohazards, he
wrote, "seem to us to be a stretch."
Upchurch, in an e-mail this week, said he
would not talk about the project "at the request of counsel."
Larry Brown, the president of BTL Engineering, which conducted the boring
tests, said the Nettles and Geohazards reports were "their
Maisto said he has been cordial with Mroz,
even inviting him to dinner, though Mroz has been "very difficult"
over the four years since the city's first citation of sinkhole damage.
"I can't argue with him. If it were
my house and I thought there was something wrong, I would certainly be
persistent," Maisto said. "However, when you put in front of me
that two plus two equals four, and my teacher says this is the answer, I
just have to shut my mouth."
Units still sell
A building threatened by a sinkhole is
typically inspected by a code official to determine whether it needs to be
evacuated, said city engineer Tom Burke. If the building is safe, the owners
or association are asked to run tests and, if there is a sinkhole, claim it
with insurance. The record of that settlement stays with the property, and
agents must disclose its history.
But Dunoon has no such settlement. In
2007, after receiving the condo board's subsurface report blaming a leak,
the city closed its violation. In June, city building code administrator
Rick Johnson wrote to Mroz that, "due to continued movement" of
the floors and wall of his condo, "further subterranean investigation
Maisto said the units are not in danger,
and that three units have sold since April, including a first-floor condo to
a St. Petersburg construction contractor. Just to be sure, he said, the
board's QBE insurers have paid for Central Florida Testing Laboratories to
review the site next month.
Maisto said the Dunoon's QBE insurance
covers sinkhole damage with a $10,000 deductible up to "a considerable
amount," though it wouldn't cover a total rebuild.
Maisto, whose wife, Joann Masserini,
serves as president of the five-member board, disagrees with residents'
claims of a cover-up. "We do not hold back on anything," Maisto
said, when told of residents' complaints that they were painting over cracks
to conceal them. "I don't care if someone calls and tells us there's a
cinder block out of place, we'll fix it."
Condos at Dunoon, one of Royal Stewart
Arms' seven buildings between Honeymoon Island and the Dunedin mainland,
sold during the housing bubble for up to $300,000, property records show.
They crashed in recent years with the market bust. At least three of
Dunoon's condos are now listed for around $150,000.
One broker, Mark Naedel with the
Alexandros Real Estate Group in Largo, said he would appraise them lower
than that. A Dunedin native, he said he has seen the Dunoon cracks worsen
over the years. "I can't list this property for sale," Naedel
said. "Nobody wants to take the responsibility. What happens if someone