SANTA ROSA COUNTY, Fla. – As Jeff and Abbey Rodamaker began tearing out trees in their newly purchased land near Gulf Breeze to make way for their future dream home, the couple heard an unexpected clinking sound as each tree fell.
The roots had pulled up numerous glass bottles and other trash, such as plastic containers, a propane tank and tires that had been buried a few feet underground. The seemingly endless garbage was hidden by dirt, brush and trees.
As the Rodamakers began digging more around the property, they realized it had once been used as a landfill, with an unknown amount of trash buried across its 6.43 acres.
“I was never able to really establish a bottom,” Jeff Rodamaker said, even finding a clear glass bottle with the words “dispose properly” scrawled across it. “Basically seeing it as deep as it was, I gave up because it’s past trying to clean up.”
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The couple said they purchased the land in February for $70,000 with a $323,000 mortgage to construct their dream home on a lot next door to close family friends. For a while, they believed they might be able salvage the property, but health concerns and the cost of mitigation proved too much. Their dream had turned into a nightmare.
“(Someone) could give me 6 acres down the street and that wouldn’t matter because we wanted to live next to them,” Jeff Rodamaker said. “Those were our best friends so there is no fixing it.”
The property on Ocean Breeze Lane has been subdivided and exchanged ownership multiple times since the 1970s, when the trash was thought to be placed there. But Abbey Rodamaker said she believed Santa Rosa County had used her property as a landfill while it was still held privately.
Alta Skinner, owner of 13.02 acres in Santa Rosa County until 1978, is linked to the land through a chain of deeds to the Rodamakers. Their parcel appears to have been subdivided into a 6.51-acre parcel in 1978 by Walter and Marie Harris, who purchased Skinner’s property that year.
Skinner appeared in minutes from a May 11, 1971, meeting of Santa Rosa’s Board of County Commissioners in which she requested the board build a road to her property. In exchange, she agreed to donate the right of way for the road and permit the county to use property owned by her as a “sanitary landfill” at no cost to the county.
“The board assured Mrs. Skinner they would start work on the road within the next few weeks,” according to the minutes.
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County staff said records in their Geographic Information System as well as the Planning and Zoning Department don’t indicate the property was once used as a landfill. Ron Hixson, the county’s environmental manager, said that at that time, there were many small landfills around.
“It specifically was a county (landfill)?” he pondered. “It could have been. It could’ve also been a privately owned landfill. I have records on county landfills, but if they were a privately owned landfill, probably not.”
The Rodamakers said they were not informed of the landfill by either the previous owner or the county.
Jack Lynch, president of the Pensacola Association of Realtors, said that when it comes to purchasing a vacant lot or a home, there are disclosure forms the seller must fill out. But if the seller isn’t aware of a previous use such as a landfill, there’s nothing for them to disclose.
“The thing that you have to remember is that you can only disclose what you know,” Lynch said. “If the person that sold them the property didn’t know that it was a landfill, there would be no way to disclose that information.”
Previous owner Andrew McCreary didn’t respond to a call from the News Journal for comment.
What are the environmental impacts?
When the Rodamakers discovered the landfill, they informed the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and had four ground wells installed for water monitoring.
“I have a child. What happens if she goes out and plays in the dirt?” Abbey Rodamaker said. “I feel like we would always be worried. If we get sick five or 10 years from now, I’d be worried that it was because of this.”
Brandy Smith, external affairs manager with the Northwest District of the DEP, said representatives visited the site and said it didn’t look to be a community landfill but rather a “promiscuous dump.” Those are defined as an “unauthorized site where indiscriminate deposits of solid waste are made,” according to department documents.
“We come across this from time to time,” Smith said. “People, they have the right to dispose of waste on their own private property if they have certain setback requirements met. I think we provided them some general guidance at the time.”
Abbey Rodamaker disputes the classification of a promiscuous dump.
“This was not a promiscuous dump,” Rodamaker said. “This was not a neighborhood dump. This was a county dump. It’s definitely more trash than dirt.”
Smith said leaving the trash in place or excavating it are both possible options for the land. She said it was unclear whether how the waste got there was illegal, but overall the inspectors didn’t believe there was a “huge volume of waste.”
“There’s not necessarily a lot of environmental concerns,” Smith said, adding that her department suggested the owners talk with a structural engineer if they planned to build.
“In a larger waste situation, we would be concerned with groundwater because as waste breaks down and deteriorates, it can generate chemicals or toxins or something that might be of concern,” Smith said. “In this case, we didn’t see that volume of waste that’s an immediate concern.”
What’s next for the property?
The Rodamakers said they are unsure of what happens next to the property.
While the family could technically still build on the land, the price of making a house structurally sound and putting it on pilings to handle any shifting trash underneath would require them to restructure their loan.
The couple said they’ve spent all of their savings to get to this point, including purchasing the property and hiring services. They’ve hired professionals to perform tests to see whether the age of the trees match up with the time Skinner’s landfill might have been covered over.
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Abbey Rodamaker said her family feels like nobody is willing to help them, whether it be attorneys who don’t want to take the case or who are too expensive, or failings of the government or others who could have informed them about the landfill.
“The people that I thought were supposed to protect us, definitely are not protecting us,” Abbey Rodamaker said. “I guess the case could be made that (the DEP) were trying to help us because they don’t want to do a site investigation. But that leaves us with contaminated land.”
The couple said it has also been suggested that they could walk away from the property, taking measures like declaring bankruptcy to get out of the situation.
“For me, there’s still the moral question,” Abbey Rodamaker said. “How do you just walk away?”
Follow Madison Arnold on Twitter: @maddymarnold
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