- Associated Press - Sunday, January 8, 2017

FRASER, Mich. (AP) - Up the street from Tom Bender’s home in suburban Detroit is a hole in the ground about the size of a football field.

Deep down inside the sinkhole’s crumbled concrete and dirt is a busted sewage line that’s expected to costs tens of millions of dollars and months to repair.

Bender and most of his neighbors in Fraser evacuated after the hole was discovered Christmas Eve are optimistic they’ll be allowed back into their homes Monday and start to get their lives back to normal. He has dealt with the disruption but is concerned that the value of the split-level he had built in 1998 has dropped due to the proximity to a stretch of sewer line that’s seen two major collapses in the past 12 years.

“I feel that it’s definitely a possibility,” said Bender, a 60-year-old police detective. “On the other hand, once they repair (the line), it will probably be the safest area.”

Of 22 houses affected by the sinkhole, three have been condemned. Officials temporarily evacuated 19 others because water and gas service had to be shut off.

Meanwhile, about 400,000 people in surrounding communities have been asked to take shorter showers and wash only full loads of clothing as part of a voluntary water conservation plea until a fix is completed.

On Friday, Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency for Macomb County. That allows state resources to be funneled to the county. It also is a precursor to pursuing state and federal funding to help with the work and costs.

What happens to home values is a concern, said Vicki Wolber, Macomb County Emergency Management director.

“We’re talking about it. We don’t have any firm answer in one direction or another,” Wolber said Friday.

Some median home values in the area were about $230,000 before the sinkhole appeared.

Property values “would have to be measured in the marketplace, but there likely would be a stigma,” Sterling Heights City Assessor Dwayne McLachlan said.

A 160 feet long, 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep sinkhole opened in 2004 when another section of the sewer line collapsed in nearby Sterling Heights. It negatively affected nearby property values.

“My recollection is they did make some assessment reductions,” said McLachlan, adding that the values have since recovered.

Pumps are moving sewage through temporary pipes and into an undamaged part of the line in Fraser. Crews are building a bypass that will keep sewage from backing up into basements of homes and businesses served by the line.

“We’re making sure the temporary pumps can withstand the normal types of flow we see this time of year,” County Executive Mark Hackel said. “A major rainfall could be problematic. So could a major snowmelt or people overusing water.”

Meanwhile, county public works officials are investigating whether a 2-inch diameter hole bored through the pipe after a 1978 collapse allowed groundwater to move up into the line and erode the soil beneath the pipe, said Jason Edberg, vice president of NTH Consultants. Edberg, an engineering consultant, is working with the county on the cause.

Bender said he and his wife are ready to return home. The couple has been staying at a hotel and believes their house is out of physical danger. It’s about 200 yards from the sinkhole.

“Obviously, anything can happen, but I don’t see that it’s going to expand that far down the street,” Bender said.

The crisis has had at least one positive outcome, he said. It’s brought neighbors closer together.

“A lot of people kept to themselves,” Bender said. “You come home from work and you go about your business. You might wave. Now, there is an open dialogue.”

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