EDITORIAL: Our position: Citizens should be willing to insure homes near bombing range

Feb 5, 2008

February 5, 2008–Orlando Sentinel

The people who live in the neighborhoods surrounding an old World War II bombing range have been failed by every level of their government.

The Department of Defense shirked its responsibility when it closed the Pinecastle Jeep bombing range and left tons of unexploded bombs and rockets buried on the south Orange County site.

Over the years, state, county and Orlando officials allowed developers to build more than 3,000 homes in the Vista Lakes, Crowntree Lakes, Warwick and Newport communities on land that likely has unexploded bombs buried beneath the sandy soil. That soil could be contaminated from fuels and explosive chemicals such as nitroglycerin. The Orange County School Board built Odyssey Middle School nearby.

These residents are scared about the safety of their families. They’re worried that the value of their homes has fallen to next to nothing. The absolute last thing they should have to worry about is whether they’ll lose their home-insurance policies.

It’s time for the state-run Citizens Property Insurance to step up and promise to cover these homes should they be dropped by private insurers. Citizens officials say no homeowners have contacted them, and they haven’t decided yet whether it would insure these homes.

It’s important that Citizens make it clear now that it will help these homeowners if need be.

If it refuses to do that, lawmakers ought to pass a law to have Citizens cover these homeowners. Banks generally insist on insurance coverage when they back mortgages. So if residents can’t find insurance, they could lose their homes.

For once, could one arm of government do something now to help these people before a problem occurs? Lawmakers need to prod Citizens along if necessary. That job falls to state Sen. Gary Siplin, whose district includes these neighborhoods. He should be on the phone to Citizens and ought to be working on legislation if necessary.

Citizens was designed to be the insurer of last resort — that certainly fits the situation here. Citizens already insures thousands of Floridians who knew the risks when they built their homes on coastlines that are prone to hurricanes. Residents near the bombing range didn’t know the risks when they bought their homes. They are innocent victims.

Since July, live bombs and debris have been found at Odyssey Middle School, on a ranch behind the school and under the yards of some homes. The Army Corps of Engineers is testing soil in the area for possible toxic chemicals.

This problem took decades to create and it will take years to resolve. The least the state can do now for these residents is provide insurance so they won’t lose the roofs over their heads.