of The Villages News
By Larry D. Croom
Published February 18, 2019
One year ago, life changed drastically for a large group of
Marion County Villages residents.
That’s because in the wee hours of the morning of Feb. 15, 2018, a series of
sinkholes opened up along McLawren Terrace in the Village of Calumet Grove. Two
houses were left severely damaged and unlivable. And a neighborhood was left in
shock and living in fear just one day after the nation was rocked by a deadly
school shooting that left 14 students dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High
School in South Florida.
On that morning one year ago, those living along McLawren
Terrace reported hearing a loud bang shortly after 3 a.m. Soon, they realized
what was happening and started calling 911 for help. And within minutes,
emergency crews arrived on scene to find the devastation the highly dangerous
sinkholes had created.
One of the homeowners, Doris Morrill, had to be rescued from
her residence. And the residents of the other damaged home, Frank and Jan
Neumann, were able to escape unscathed, though one sinkhole at least 35 feet
deep opened up just outside their lanai door.
Throughout the day, nervous residents and public safety officials kept an eye on
the sinkholes. Some shared their stories of being awaked in the early morning
hours to the unknown outside. And there was fear later in the day that a
sinkhole might be moving under a portion of McLawren Terrace.
Little did the residents, public safety crews and government officials know that
in three short months, they’d be right back on McLawren Terrace dealing with the
same problem, only on a much bigger scale.
But on the morning of Feb. 15 and into the next day, those shaken residents were
still trying to comprehend how their usually quiet neighborhood had been rocked
to its core. Some had been evacuated on extremely short notice by Marion County
Sheriff’s deputies who were going door to door. The two damaged homes were
tagged with red stickers, meaning entry into the structures was forbidden. And
the two homes next to those were tagged with yellow signs, meaning those
residents could remove items and valuables but couldn’t stay there.
Yellow crime scene tape blocked access to the sinkhole at
a storm drain in May.
In March, close to 200 worried Villagers crowded into the
Mulberry Grove Recreation Center for a question-and-answer session with
Community Development District 4 Supervisor Don Deakin. They came armed with
questions about everything from insurance issues to who would be responsible for
repairs to the controversial drain pipe that ran between the two damaged homes.
Many residents even wondered aloud if that pipe had somehow been involved in the
Two and a half months after that meeting – just when nerves were starting to
somewhat settle along McLawren Terrace – the unthinkable happened. Once again –
this time around 9:30 a.m. – sinkholes started opening up in the neighborhood.
One took out a huge chunk of the roadway and portions of the two front yards at
the already-damaged homes. Two other sinkholes opened up in the yards. And a
fourth re-opened underneath the lake on the golf course behind the homes.
Deakin quickly arrived to check out the damage and said he was extremely
concerned about the residents in his district. Frank Neumann was busy surveying
the area near his damaged home alongside an engineer he had brought in. And it
was revealed that Morrill had been told that her home was a “wash” and would
need to be demolished and rebuilt.
The latest round of sinkholes prompted Smithsonian Magazine to take a look at
the issue. The magazine pointed out that “The Villages has been in development
overdrive” and called the community a “hotbed of sinkholes.”
In June, then-Villages District Assistant Manager Richard Baier gave a detailed
presentation before a packed house of residents attending the CDD 4 meeting at
Savannah Center. Many Villagers continued to remain suspicious about the
stormwater drainage pipe. But District officials vehemently denied any link
between the pipe and the sinkholes, with District Counsel Valerie Fuchs saying
there was no indication the sinkholes were anything more than, “An act of God, a
In July, Morrill’s home, which was owned by a trust set up by her late husband,
was deemed by engineering firms to be unstable and dangerous at best. Frustrated
and angry residents expressed concerns over the fact that McLawren Terrace was
still closed in front of the abandoned homes. And Baier, now District manager,
pointed out that crews couldn’t work on the roadway and the drain pipe between
the homes until Morrill and the Neumanns took action to get their properties
Those frazzled Calumet Grove residents also expressed frustrations over their
property values as the nightmare moved into its fifth month.
“We know that’s a problem,” Heidi Pfleger said about the potential hit to the
value of the home she and husband Richard own on McAlpin Street. “Let’s face it,
as you can see, there’s not a single home for sale around here. Because what’s
Frank Neumann, who had been instructed by his attorney to avoid talking about
specifics regarding his damaged house, also expressed concern about his property
value. He said the entire situation had been very “disruptive” for him and his
“We didn’t come here for this,” Jan Neumann said. “The stress level has been
immense. We really don’t need this.”
In September, CDD 4 approved a 20 percent increase in maintenance assessment
rates despite a room full of residents urging them not to do it. The supervisors
pointed out that among other expenses connected to Hurricane Irma, the District
already had spent $190,000 on the sinkhole issue, with at least another $700,000
expected to be spent.
Eventually, as time drug on and the situation with the two damaged homes
remained unchanged, the District started considering legal action. A month
later, that battle became even more intense as the Neumanns and their attorney,
Erik “Rick” Nutter Jr., prepared to appear before the Marion County Code
Enforcement Board along to ask for more time to fix their home.
They were granted that extension and District officials and Calumet Grove
residents were told they couldn’t speak about the issue. That prompted outrage
in the hallway, as officials and residents alike had hoped to address the public
safety issue at the two properties.
“Marion County is knowingly allowing a potential tragedy to occur,” said Marilyn
Riccio, who along with husband Vincent lives next door to the Neumanns. “And all
those board members, I hope they’ll be held responsible if someone loses their
Last week, for the first time in a year, Baier reported potential good news to
CDD 4 supervisors. He said that both of the damaged homes had been sold to
Hayden Wrobel Asset Trust Holdings LLC and the company had brought on two new
contractors to make repairs to the houses, which they then planned to resell.
Baier said the District was hoping to sign deals with the same contractors to
get McLawren Terrace and the stormwater drain pipe repaired. He said that work
still could be six to nine months away but added that he was “cautiously
optimistic” a solution might be forthcoming.
So as year two of the sinkhole saga begins, McLawren Terrace residents are
hoping a solution has been found. They know it will come with a hefty price tag
likely to exceed $1 million. And even though they remain optimistic, one year to
the day after the tragedy struck the neighborhood, those residents’ lives are
still as disrupted as they were on the morning of Feb. 15, 2018.