Talks begin for homes on dump


Published: Thursday, January 29, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 29, 2004 at 12:27 a.m.
For the first day of what is likely be a lengthy mediation, homeowners, environmental officials and a host of legal experts spent Wednesday discussing how to assist six Hawthorne families whose homes are built above a former city dump.
No agreements were reached, participants said, and much of the day was spent in private sessions. But while the day's talks in the Alachua County administration building ended without closure, participants said they didn't leave disappointed.
"I'm going to be patient," said Linda Heiser-Butcher, whose home in the First Addition subdivision is cracking and settling above five acres of buried garbage. "I've been patient this long. It won't hurt to be patient a little longer."
Thomas Pelham, a Tallahassee lawyer and the county-appointed mediator, said much of the day was spent in private discussions with impacted parties to determine "how the financial aspects of this will be addressed, and by whom."
Pelham said he could not disclose what was discussed behind closed doors, but he did say all parties - including city and county officials, impacted residents and Jim Mills, who built many of the homes in the First Addition - remained at the table.
Since August, state and local officials have been working to unravel the First Addition landfill debacle. Records indicate that the land was used as a city dump between 1971 and 1974; that the County Commission approved the land for development in the early 1980s; and Jim Mills built homes above the site in the late 1990s.
But it remains unclear who will end up footing the bill to solve the First Addition's problems.
On Wednesday, Pelham said the purpose of the mediation was not to establish fault but to come to agreement on "acceptable solutions that will resolve this."
When and if a solution is agreed upon, fault would become "irrelevant," he said, stressing that "reaching a solution without costly and time-consuming litigation is in the best interests of all parties involved."
While much of the day was spent discussing already released data, Hawthorne city attorney Sam Mutch offered new evidence that the situation may be growing dire. According to an investigation completed by Blum, Schumacher and Associates, a Gainesville environmental engineering firm contracted by the city, at least one impacted home - owned by Denise Kemper - is sinking into landfill debris immediately below it.
And because uneven settling could lead to a rapid structural failure, the report recommended that the "Kemper residence be abandoned" within the next three to six months.
"We have some concern that a relatively sudden subsidence of the materials under the Kemper residence could cause a structural failure that could possibly result in property damage, personal injury or even death," report said.
For Mutch, the finding translates into a situation so grave - and potentially expensive - that it could have city-wide implications.
"This could mean the demise of the city of Hawthorne, from a financial standpoint," the attorney said.
For homeowners, the findings offered yet another piece of evidence that the time has come for closure the their personal property nightmares.
"It is our opinion that the home is a total loss," Heiser-Butcher said as she chocked back tears at the podium. "Our investment is gone. We cannot sell the home. And we are not willing to live in it any longer than necessary."
Haskel Ross, 54, another resident, agreed.
"This is a problem that needs to be resolved," Ross said. "Everyone seems like they're trying to work together. But it's been months and it's still dragging on. We need to get this settled so we can move on with our lives."
Greg Bruno can be reached at (352) 374-5026 or greg.bruno@gvillesun.com.

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