Robert and Rhonda Matheny sometimes drive by their old Jonesville-area home — the home in which they spent 37 years raising a family — just to look at it.
The can see the house, but they can’t see the mammoth hole in the ground that chased them from the home. The backyard sinkhole, about 80 feet long and 40 feet wide, is now locked behind a wooden privacy fence at the home at 11958 SW Fifth Ave.
But something surprised the Mathenys on a recent drive by the home — they saw that people were living there.
“The geologist, the day it happened, looked at us very, very sternly and said, ‘I would not close my eyes in that house.’ So we didn’t, and we just can’t imagine anybody living in it,” Rhonda Matheny said. “Oh sure, we miss the house. It makes me sad sometimes, but we feel like we are blessed because we simplified our lives.”
The Matheny sinkhole opened a little more than a year ago. It did not damage the house or the pool.
Much of western Alachua County is prone to sinkholes because of the geology. There isn’t much of an earthen buffer, such as clay, separating the surface from the limestone underneath.
Sinkholes tend to form in such terrain, especially when the groundwater table is low and heavy rains occur. The weight causes the limestone to collapse at weak points.
Data from the Suwannee River Water Management District show that groundwater levels are low in southwestern Alachua County along with sections of Levy and Dixie counties.
Bricky Way, a geologist with Geohazards Inc. of Gainesville, said sinkholes are difficult to predict regardless of the conditions.
“I know some people have said we have sinkhole seasons, but I don’t know that it is really possible to make predictions,” Way said. “As far as being able to predict whether this will be a bad year or not, it’s not easy to do. It’s dependent on the (groundwater) level, which fluctuates.”
Some sinkholes are obvious by their size and location. Others are not, particularly if they are small and under a home. Cracked walls or buckled floors in a home could be signs of a sinkhole, or these problems could be from settling or other issues.
Way said geologists use equipment such as ground-penetrating radar and electrical resistance imaging in an initial investigation of potential sinkhole activity.
Then test borings are put down to look for physical evidence of loose zones or cavities indicating sinkholes.
Insurance companies operating in Florida are required to provide coverage for “catastrophic ground collapse.”
Criteria include the abrupt collapse of the ground, a depression clearly visible to the naked eye, structural damage to the building including the foundation, and condemnation of the building by a government agency.
Property owners have the option of purchasing sinkhole coverage. If a home is damaged by sinkhole activity but does not meet the criteria for catastrophic collapse, sinkhole insurance will pay for any damage.
The cost of sinkhole coverage varies depending on size of the home, the year the home was built and other factors.
Bryan Williams of McGriff-Williams Insurance in Gainesville said few companies are selling sinkhole coverage to new homebuyers.
“If somebody moves to town and is purchasing a new house, buying sinkhole coverage is getting to be pretty hard. There are not many companies left that even offer that coverage,” Williams said. “I would say that 90 percent of the people buying new insurance are not buying it because it’s not offered. It’s a different story if you have a policy.”
Companies that do offer it to current policyholders may require inspections or charge high deductibles, Williams said.
The Mathenys are now living in a condo near their old home. Rhonda Matheny said insurance paid them for expenses incurred when the sinkhole opened, but they still owned the house and the liability.
They sold the house in an unqualified sale to a company that buys homes with sinkholes, according to the Alachua County Property Appraiser’s Office website. Sales are unqualified if the sale price does not reflect market value, involves multiple properties or if the sale is between family members.
The house sold for $5,000 while the market value is $44,100. The buyer was listed as 11958 SW 5th Ave LLC of Port Richey, sharing an address with the firm that leases the home, Trinity Management Group. Attempts to reach someone there were unsuccessful.
Several Florida companies advertise on the Internet as buying sinkhole homes. The Sun was able to reach one, but he hung up or the call was dropped and never returned. None of the others returned messages.
Meanwhile, the current renter would not talk with The Sun about living in the house.
Alachua County Building Official Phil Dunnington said no permits were filed to do any sinkhole repair on the Matheny home.