BOCC to consider expanding areas

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners will be asked Wednesday if they want to expand the proposed Cudjoe Regional Wastewater system by an additional 137 users in the outer islands portion of the project.

If the answer is yes, some property owners that have been told they won’t be on the central sewer system for nearly a decade, will indeed be added to the hundreds of miles of pipe that will criss-cross the island of the Cudjoe Regional service area.

When the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority requested bids for the estimated $150 million project, it asked the responding contractors to let them know how much it would cost to pick up additional areas not originally slated for central service.

And those additions were “surprisingly low’” said County Administrator Roman Gastesi.

“There was a time three years ago when we thought it was going to cost us $22,000 per EDU (equivalent dwelling unit or the average flow from a single-family home) to build this system,” said Gastesi. “Who would have believed that the bids would come back, in the outer islands, at around $15,000 per EDU?”

And that is basically what it will cost the county to add those minimum of 137 EDUs to the outer island portion of the Cudjoe Regional.

The system is split into three phases. The first is the treatment plant on Blimp Road in Cudjoe Key. The second is the inner island collection system spanning Upper Sugarloaf to Summerland Key. The third is the outer island collection system spanning Ramrod through Big Pine and west to grab to Lower Sugarloaf.

FKAA officials said there were no significant deals to be had in the inner island collection system, but there were deals to be had in the outer island portion.

The current master plan calls for about 288 users plus one large commercial user to be off the central system.

If the BOCC accepts the expansions, it would leave less than 150 users in the outer island service area in need of upgraded on-site sewage treatment.

And that might allow the FKAA to subsidize every on-site system with a grant it received about two years ago from the Department of Environmental Protection to help off-central users pay for upgraded septic systems.

“We are leaning strongly toward recommending to the commission that they approve the expansion,” said Gastesi.

Bids for all three phases of the Cudjoe Regional without the expansions totaled about $131 million. Adding the 137 EDUs would up that price by $2.1 million, an amount that has already been tentatively plugged into the master financing plan.

That plan calls for $146 million. Also in the plan is $7 million in administrative costs for FKAA oversight of the contracts, $3.4 million in contingency money for a final solution to the Niles Channel crossing issue, and $2.6 million in commercial assistance money for those commercial properties where geography doesn’t allow for gravity feed to the pipe in the street and a lift station on the property will be required.

The largest addition will be in the Big Pine south region where homes that had been excluded between Wilder and Key Deer will be added and homes east of Wilder will be added, as well as homes in the Warner Road area east of St. Peter Church.

The next largest addition will be Long Beach Road. Officials have never even discussed picking up Long Beach Road because of its remoteness from where any other pipe would be, but the cost by the contractor was estimated to be nearly exactly what the overall per EDU cost was, “and it makes economic sense now,” said Gastesi.

Of course, FKAA and the county would get a bonus if they go out and pick up Long Beach because the Big Pine Fishing Lodge, the largest lodging establishment on the island, would then be included, but is not included in the additional EDU numbers.

Hook up fees for the resort haven’t been calculated as yet because it was never before on the radar for a central system, but smaller lodging establishments in the nearby area have been tagged for upwards of 30 EDUs. The hook up fee is based on water usage.

But adding areas previously in a cold spot where no central pipes were anticipated also raises some questions on how to handle folks who tried to get ahead of the game and already installed a state-approved on-site system.

One of those folks is Deer Run Bed and Breakfast co-owner Harry Appel who just spent tens of thousands of dollars preparing to install a compliant on-site system.

“If they do this, they need to find some way to let me recoup me my money,” said Appel. “If they do it, that’s OK because it would be better environmentally and we’re all about that here. But I have a letter saying I would never be hooked in and I based my decisions on that.”

There are currently 12 other already compliant on-site systems in the proposed addition area, “So that’s a policy conversation that has to occur right now,” said Gastesi.

FKAA must sign contracts before March 1 or the county stands to lose $30 million in promised state funding.

“We won’t jeopardize that money,” said Gastesi.

At issue are the folks who have installed advanced on-site systems in keeping with a state mandate to do so first by 2010 and now by 2015 who believed they were off the central system, or were forced to do so because their present systems failed and had to be replaced or repaired.

“We have to be able to find some way to fashion an exemption for those people,” said Gastesi. “Whether we exempt them altogether from hook up fees or we simply allow their compliant system to run its course and hook in after that, we have to make that decision.”

“The FKAA board needs to know what our decision is on the expansion before they sign final contracts for the price,” Gastesi said.

“We have to look at what’s fair,” he said.

This is an issue that has only arisen in the development of the Cudjoe Regional because every other system in the county with the exception of Islamorada’s municipal system, was off the ground before an exemption to forced on-site upgrades expired.

County officials also have to know if they will have to re-adopt their wastewater master plan, set in place the last time in 2009, because that plan, codified in the comprehensive land use plan, leaves the proposed additions off the central lines.

According to internal county memos, the state Department of Economic Opportunity, the land use overseer for Monroe County with the dismantling of the Department of Community Affairs by Gov. Rick Scott, would not have to approve an expansion of the project area, but no one has yet answered whether the legislature would have to change the enabling legislation because it references the master plan.

“We will have to have a detailed discussion Wednesday. This can’t wait. The contracts need to be signed,” said Gastesi.

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