Meade County is investigating the history of a Black Hawk subdivision after sinkholes exposed an abandoned mine, forcing a dozen families to evacuate.
“We’re trying to look through the archive files to get all the information we can,” said Bill Rich, deputy planning director. “I’m interested in what was submitted, what was mentioned, what wasn’t — there could have been things that were overlooked.”
“We can try to determine how that happened,” Rich said of how the Hideaway Hills subdivision was built over a mine made of water-soluble gypsum. “Somebody had to know.”
Rich said neither he nor the director of the Equalization and Planning Office worked in planning when the subdivision was approved in 2002. He said he’s looking over the application materials and relevant ordinances from the time to figure out what happened.
Current subdivision ordinances — which Rich said are updated once or twice a year — require developers to provide information such as drainage studies and the results of soil boring tests.
The South Dakota Department of Transportation is also doing an investigation into whether Interstate-90 is at risk due to the sinkholes and mine, said spokeswoman Kristi Sandal. She said the results of the inquiry will be shared with Meade County and property owners, and made accessible to the Journal and public upon request.
Meanwhile, the director of emergency management is preparing to apply for a FEMA grant that would pay homeowners 75% of the value of their homes before the sinkholes emerged.
“It’s competitive,” Doug Huntrods said of the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, adding that he’s “not going to quit looking” for other grants, such as ones related to mining reclamation.
In the meantime, more than 30 residents living in 12 homes have been ordered to leave their homes while authorities conduct their investigations.
So far, Rich said, he’s found documents that show the subdivision was approved by the Meade County Planning Board in 2002. He said the developer was Keith Kuchenbecker and the engineer was Renner & Sperlich, but he’s not sure who built the homes.
Renner & Sperlich was an engineering company based in Rapid City. Gary Renner said he knows he personally wasn't involved in the Hideaway Hills project and isn't sure if the company was either since the name doesn't sound familiar. Doug Sperlich did not immediately return a message from the Journal.
The developer does not appear to be the Keith Kuchenbecker from Wisconsin who spent time in federal prison for tax crimes — what some Hideaway Hills residents have come to believe. Rich said Kuchenbecker and his wife live in the Rapid City area.
A number for Kuchenbecker could not be found. A call to a number listed in his wife's name was answered by a woman who said Kuchenbecker was not available and then hung up after the Journal asked to discuss the Hideaway Hills development with him.
Journal archives show that Kuchenbecker worked on water projects as manager of the West River Conservancy Subdistrict in Phillip in the 1970s. Kuchenbecker is later described in Journal articles and classified ads from the 1990s and 2000s as a land buyer and developer in Pennington and Meade counties.
There are no public notices mentioning Kuchenbecker and Renner & Sperlich being involved with Hideaway Hills.
The Northdale Sanitary District — which provides water, sewer and other services to the community — published public notices announcing it was annexing the Hideaway Hills Subdivision in 2002, Journal archives show.
A call to the district’s clerk was not immediately returned.
Grant, information resources
Huntrods said the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program is the best option for the homeowners.
The program would pay homeowners 75% of the value of the houses before the sinkholes emerged. The other 25% would be pooled together to pay for the cost of tearing down the homes, capping off utilities and turning the community into a natural area.
The grant application requires 25 documents totaling “several hundred pages” that are due to the South Dakota Office of Emergency Management by July, said Huntrods. That office then ranks applications based on need and forwards the proposals to FEMA until the state runs out of its allocated funds.
If approved, the funds would likely be made available in early 2021, said Huntrods.
Huntrods said the mine exposure does not qualify as a FEMA disaster, which requires at least $1.2 million in damage to public infrastructure. Plus, even if the community qualified, the program only pays a maximum of $30,000 to homeowners.
Huntrods said he’s researching whether mining reclamation funds could help the families. He said he called one organization that said their funds are only for people impacted by coal mines.
He’s also working with the Red Cross to provide free crisis disaster counseling to the families.
The county has created a Hideaway Hills information page under the “resources” tab on its website. The page explains the geology of the area, the discovery of the sinkholes and mine, what the county is doing to help residents, and the history of the mine.
As the Journal discovered in its archives, the mine was built in 1910 by the Dakota Plaster Company. Workers produced 200 tons of gypsum each day, much of which was used in the State Cement Plant in Rapid City, the website says. The plaster mill next to the mine may have closed in 1930.
The area was later used as a dump, which may explain why old cars were found in the mine older residents told Huntrods.
Those interested in learning more about the sinkholes at Hideaway Hills and across the Black Hills can do so by listening to a free online Zoom or Facebook Live lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday. The presentation is by geologist Karl Emanuel and hosted by the Paha Sapa Grotto, the caving organization that discovered the mine. Learn more at pahasapagrotto.org/meetings.
— Contact Arielle Zionts at firstname.lastname@example.org.