Don’t pass up the chance to help

By Steve Estes

Next Friday, county officials will have the perfect chance to start a long-needed discussion on some way to help property owners caught in a sewer debacle not of their own making.

The county’s Development Review Committee meets that day to discuss various elements of the updated comprehensive land use plan.

Included in that discussion will be the county’s rule that any property where a central sewer collection pipe is available at the street has but 30 days to hook into that pipe once they get the notice of availability.

Only in the area to be served by the Cudjoe Regional system, which spans properties from Lower Sugarloaf Key to Big Pine Key, has this been a real issue.

Until a few years ago, when the Cudjoe Regional and Islamorada were the only systems not yet to break ground, if a property owner had to repair or replace a septic tank, they could do so with what was called an interim system instead of a system that meets the state’s mandate for treated sewage. Even though interim systems weren’t exactly cheap, they weren’t as costly as the Advanced Wastewater Treatment systems that are now required.

The other service areas were able to repair systems to standards from a decade ago because they had some idea when they were going to hook into the central line.

New construction had the same option until that same time frame. After the legislation allowing that break expired, it was never renewed and since no one was sure until mid-year 2012 that the Cudjoe Regional would actually get off the ground in a timely fashion, property owners had to go with the more expensive AWT systems.

Then came the county’s decision last month to expand the original service area into places where property owners had been told they could expect to never see a central collection pipe in front of their home.

And that left some dozen folks with systems in the ground that meet state standards, but a county regulation to hook into the central pipe within 30 days of notice of availability.

We’re told that in Wednesday’s meeting where the sewer element will be discussed, county staff will probably suggest that the hook up regulations be relaxed to match the state’s one-year time frame.

That’s a step in the right direction.

And we heard from the members of the county commission last month that folks caught in the expansion process that had already spent big bucks to comply with state regulation could expect to see some program to offer relief and avoid paying for a mandated system only to tear it out and hook into the central system.

The DRC meeting next week is a perfect place to unveil that program, or at least a working framework for that program.

The new comprehensive plan is supposed to take us out to the next 20 years. There’s a good chance, no a great chance, that we’ll still be building sewer systems over the first 20 percent of that time.

So putting something together to take care of these 60-plus homes estimated to be caught in this situation should start now.

Many good ideas have been floated to date.

Allow the compliant systems to continue to operate until they cease to perform at acceptable levels. At that time, tear them out and hook into the central lines.

Allow the currently compliant systems to skip the hook up fee and just run a pipe when the current system fails.

Simply change the county’s regulations to allow something along those lines to happen, and then petition the state to make that variance possible under state statute as well.

The state’s take on the program is that local governments don’t have to give waivers—but nothing says they can’t—as long as the waiver meets the approval of the state Department of Environmental Protection in the case of large systems and the Department of Health for single-family systems.

We put the onus for this program squarely on the shoulders of the county’s administrative staff and public works hierarchy.

And we’d like to see it sooner rather than later so there’s time to get it nailed down before the first pipe is ready to transfer effluent to the treatment plant on Cudjoe Key.

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