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Seffner fatal sinkhole site's fate still unclear

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Published:   |   Updated: February 20, 2014 at 06:53 AM

TAMPA — Chuck Holloway didn't sleep well for a week after a sinkhole swallowed his neighbor Jeffrey Bush in Seffner last year.

“And neither did anyone else around here,” he said from his front patio Wednesday afternoon.

Next week will be the one-year anniversary of the fatal sinkhole, which drew national and international attention, and Hillsborough County is moving forward with a plan for the property on which the gaping hole opened.

Over the past year, the county has destroyed the remains of the house under which the sinkhole formed, along with the two houses on either side. Now, the question is what to do with the three empty lots.

The county is taking suggestions, though in any scenario public access to the site of the filled-in sinkhole will be prohibited on the advice of a geo-engineer.

The lots sit empty, an orange construction net around the spot of the sinkhole. A chain link fence stretches along the perimeter of the property. Small memorials, including six-inch glass angels, a string of hearts and an engraved granite tombstone, line the fence along the sidewalk.

The homeowners have agreed to relinquish to the county any claims to the property and the paperwork is being finalized. The county has plans to erect a memorial plaque of some kind at the site, though the design is undetermined.

The land will belong to the county's parks and recreation department, which will make it a conservation area. The county plans to plant pines, oaks, palms and other indigenous flora.

Jack Carlisle, director of parks and recreation, said the county has been in touch with the Bush family and neighboring homeowners and announced what the preliminary plans were for the three lots at a public meeting on Feb. 12.

Carlisle's report was delivered to the Hillsborough County Commission on Wednesday. He said the report was prepared to let the commission know what was going on at the one-year anniversary of the sinkhole, “to provide information on things we are doing, once we own the property.”

Insurance claims have paid the homeowners for damages caused by the sinkhole and condemnations by the county, he said.

Carlisle said he wanted to accomplish three objectives at the site:

♦  To assure public safety on the property. “We have recommendations from a geo-engineer regarding access to the property, and the recommendations include prohibiting public access,” he said. The entire parcel will be fenced, and a separate fenced area will be within the perimeter to protect the actual sinkhole site.

♦  To assure an aesthetically pleasing design with an eye toward minimal maintenance.

“When you look at the property, it will look like a conservation area,” he said. “It will look like what it might have looked like before the developer ever came in. If you take Sunday drive into rural Florida, it'll look like that.”

♦  To respectfully honor what happened at the site one year ago. “We don't know yet exactly what that will mean,” he said.

The Bush family wants a visible memorial, though some neighbors don't want a large memorial, he said. Some neighbors say the family should get whatever it wants; others are against any type of memorial.

“Suggestions,” he said, “are all over the map. So we're still undecided.”

He hopes to complete the project by the end of the year.

***

At 11:11 p.m. on Feb. 28, the earth gave way beneath the floor of the home at 240 Faithway Drive, where Bush slept in his bed.

The sudden appearance of the sinkhole destroyed much of the concrete foundation in the bedroom. Despite valiant efforts by his brother to save him, Bush, 37, disappeared into the cascading soil. Rescue workers were unable to retrieve his body.

A year later, the neighborhood along Faithway Drive remains a quiet working-class place existing in the shades of tall oaks, much like it was before the sinkhole opened up.

It's taken a year, but the neighborhood is back now to where it was - sort of, said Holloway, the 73-year-old homeowner whose property abuts the parcel.

The main difference between then and now, other than the uneasiness he feels every time he hears a creak in his 40-year-old house, is the devaluation of his property.

“I figure it dropped by about $20,000,” he said. He recently paid for an appraisal, and though no one would say it on paper, he figures the drop in the value of his home is because of its proximity to the sinkhole.

He's not going to sell his home, the home he raised his four children in, but he couldn't afford to, either, he said.

“It ain't enough to go buy another house,” he said.

Being so close to the site, Holloway said, does concern him, even now, a year later.

“I ain't dropped my guard,” he said.

The neighborhood hasn't changed much except for the disappearance of the three houses, said George Kloiver, 68, who lives around the corner from the site where Bush's gravestone sits next to the sidewalk.

“The neighborhood has not changed,” he said. “Nobody's moved out.”

According to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office, the most recent house sold on Faithway Drive was in March 2012, nearly a year before the sinkhole incident. A check of real estate market websites shows no homes on that street currently for sale.

Kloiver said the community bonded after the sinkhole claimed one of their own last year.

“It's an extremely diverse neighborhood with great people,” he said “There's not a single neighbor I don't like.”

Kloiver and Holloway are among the neighbors who are working with the county trying to reach a decision about what to do with the parcel. He's not a fan of a big grave marker there, though he understands how the family would want one.

“It was a horrible thing,” he said of Bush's death, “but I'd rather see a plaque, not a grave marker. That was a historic event, no two ways about it.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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