Sinkhole math a problem

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

Published  December 13, 2006

Forget FCAT math. Check this equation, pondered as a solution to a high-profile problem:

5 feet + 7 days = 1 catastrophe.

It is the working definition of a sinkhole-related (make that ground-subsidence) calamity that could become state law.

Here's a little perspective. The better half of my household stands barely 5 feet. Let's say our house starts sinking, steadily, over the next seven days. By the end of the week, the house is so low that when my wife stands in the indentation, only the top of her head is visible. (Our 9-year-old would be swallowed completely.)

Too bad for us. We're on the hook for the insurance repairs if the house is habitable.

Ridiculous? Absolutely, but it's one of the ideas being kicked around as a way to try to reduce homeowner's insurance premiums.

By making sinkhole coverage optional and increasing deductible payments, the intent is to trim premiums (or at least premium increases) by reducing the risk for payouts by Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-created insurer of last resort that now writes 1.3-million policies.

Homeowners would still be protected in the event of a calamity by traditional coverage for catastrophic act. To be worked out, then, are the details of defining catastrophic act separately from a sinkhole. The working numbers call for a house to settle at least 5 feet over seven days for coverage to kick in.

Less than 5 feet? Sorry. Ditto if the house sinks but takes eight days to complete its 5-foot collapse.

"Who's that helping?" asks Ginny Stevans, president of the advocacy group Homeowners Against Citizens. "It hurts us even more."

Stevans answered her own rhetorical question.

"Where's the help? Everything they propose is to help the insurance companies."

She's not alone in her thinking.

"I am very dismayed that the risk in a risk business is being put back on the people," said Wil Nickerson, also a HAC member.

Citizens' rates are scheduled to go up nearly 26 percent Jan. 1 under a previously approved increase. Last Thursday, Citizens said it will not seek a 56 percent rate increase in wind-only coverage starting March 1 until the Legislature meets in a special session next month.

That 56 percent increase, incidentally, was mandated by the Legislature earlier this year in a bill supposedly intended to help decrease rates.

That kind of help, contained in what is known as Senate Bill 1980, is why homeowners tend to get nervous when the Legislature starts drafting definitions for sinkholes, ground suppressions and settlements.

Let's face it: The state wants to outlaw sinkholes. Such a farfetched reaction diminishes the proactive approach to future building rules considered by county commissions, including mandating preconstruction ground inspections of individual home lots and enhancing the paper trail to better document sinkhole claims, payouts and home repairs.

If everyone is so convinced that the propensity for sinkhole claims in Pasco and Hernando counties is a result of fraud or aggressive client recruiting by specific law firms, why then must new inspections be required for future home sites?

And what about those inspections? Ground penetrating radar might show a picture 20 feet deep, but it does not penetrate clay or rock. In other words, property owners wouldn't be getting a complete picture of what lies beneath the top soil.

And the most rudimentary of tests - county inspectors digging their heels into the dirt to check for compression - strikes us as little guarantee that an unfortunate equation couldn't lie ahead for some future homeowner:

4 feet + 8 days = 0 help.