Sinkhole or no sinkhole? Residents fight 6-year battle as law shifts around them

by Michael Mosher on July 29, 2015

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Pauline France, 87, and her son, Jeff Nancarvis, are sure their house is sitting on top of a sinkhole on White Oak Drive in Maitland.

It may not be visible aboveground. But it’s there, they say — under the home.

An independent analysis by the state of Florida has confirmed their fears, but the family’s insurance company has reached a different conclusion: There is no sinkhole, and there is no valid claim.

Their battle with St. Johns Insurance Co. has gone on for six years — so long, in fact, that many of the laws dealing with sinkhole coverage in Florida have since changed dramatically, shifting the burden of proof from insurance companies to policyholders.

The insurance industry pushed for the law changes because of a dramatic increase in sinkhole claims during the previous 10 years, especially in “Sinkhole Alley” in Citrus, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. Many in the industry considered the claims excessive or even fraudulent, though opponents think the law changes went too far.

“They basically wrote all actual sinkholes out of existence in Florida except for the catastrophic ones,” said N.S. Nettles of the Nettles & Associates engineering firm in Palm Harbor, which was hired by Nancarvis and France to investigate their claim.

The whole situation at the France home started in 2009 as a noise complaint involving a neighbor’s pump for his well.

After cracks developed around the property, they brought in St. Johns Insurance to do an inspection. Nancarvis said an initial survey led to further investigation.

Ground-penetrating radar took place at borings dug throughout the property, “and we waited for the results, figuring they’d fix it and everything would be great,” Nancarvis said.

“Then mom got a notice that they found nothing. Just nothing. They rejected her claim.”

The family hired an attorney, who hired Nettles to conduct its own investigation. Nettles’ firm found evidence of a sinkhole developing, Nancarvis said, so they filed suit against St. Johns.

“We had to get a public adjuster to take us through all of this stuff,” Nancarvis said. “[The adjusters] call it ‘The Game,’ which I found interesting.”

One arbitration hearing led to another, with years in between.

In June 2014, a state-designated “Neutral Evaluator” investigated the residence and determined that a sinkhole loss was “verified” — to France’s and Nancarvis’ surprise, as they had been told by their experts that evaluators had sided more with insurance companies than policyholders.

The evaluator estimated the cost of building stabilization and repair at about $187,000, which St. Johns rejected.
Jonathan B. Mertz, vice president and marketing director with St. Johns’ parent company, St. James Insurance Group, said the company would not comment because of the pending lawsuit.

Lynne McChristian, Florida spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, said that state data showed an increase in sinkhole claims of more than 1,000 percent from 1999 to 2011.

“Was there a 1,000 percent increase in sinkhole activity?” McChristian said. “The answer to that question is no. Loopholes in the law allowed people to file claims and not use the money to make repairs.”

Receiving sinkhole-claim money and not repairing any damage on the home or property also resulted in cities’ collecting less money in property taxes on damaged but still livable homes, McChristian said.

The new law seems to have made a difference. In 2011, the year the law was changed, Citizens Property Insurance said it paid out some $500 million in sinkhole claims in Florida. In 2013, the state-created insurance company said it paid out a little more than $100 million.

Robert Brinkmann, director of the sustainability-studies program at Hofstra University and author of the book “Florida Sinkholes: Science and Policy,” said the biggest impact of the law changes has been the inability of people to get coverage in the first place.

“One of the problems is that there have been some professional standards that have been attempted to be put forward, but they haven’t been agreed upon by earth science [experts],” Brinkmann said. “Even the definition is still under debate. There’s very little standardization.”

In the past, he explained, “sinkholes” were described as any location where water below ground is settling down into an empty “void.” Something would be considered a “sinkhole” even if it wasn’t an obvious surface hole.

But there’s debate in the scientific community, and some definitions of sinkholes require some kind of visible “surface expression” above ground.

Most Floridians are familiar with giant, ground-eating sinkholes such as the one that swallowed a swimming pool and car dealership in Winter Park in 1981 or the sinkhole that swallowed a man in his bedroom outside Tampa in 2013.

But many more are similar to what France is claiming, causing cracks and foundation damage without ever collapsing — all while the new insurance rules have made it “very difficult to get sinkhole insurance just generally now,” Brinkmann said.

At his home in Hillsborough County, in the heart of Sinkhole Alley, “basically someone walked through the house for five minutes and denied sinkhole coverage.”

For large stretches of sinkhole-susceptible areas, “I don’t want to say there’s redlining, but it’s verging on redlining. … It drives whole property values all the way down.”

Combined with how Florida doesn’t have rules evaluating sinkhole damage prior to building, as in states such as Kentucky, Brinkmann said there could eventually be a big impact on housing.

Another hearing on the France house case is set for Aug. 31, Nancarvis said. They hope to receive enough from St. Johns to stabilize the house.

Meanwhile, everything around their home is almost frozen in time, with France having been told by attorneys not to make any changes to the home while the case progresses.

She shouldn’t even plant things in the yard, Nancarvis said, lest it affect the ground borings.

“This is six years!” Nancarvis said. “I’m not trying to attack anybody, but it is what it is. This is what life is. … And no one can guarantee there won’t be a collapse. It’s not probable — but it could happen.”

Full article…here

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