Sewer change leaves a hole

By Steve Estes

The bed and breakfast on Big Pine Key that has been given more awards for their efforts in moving toward a truly green, self-sustainable lodging facility than any other in the immediate vicinity has a distinctive brownish hue these days.

That’s because of the large open hole that is in the middle of the property.

And why, one asks, is there a large open hole in the middle of a lodging property that is at the height of season, remains almost fully occupied year round, and sits on the open water on Long Beach Road?

That hole, it seems, was supposed to be the eventual receptacle for a state-of-the-art on-site wastewater system that serves as waste treatment plant and irrigation source for the property’s lush landscaping.

And with current decisions made by the county in regard to wastewater implementation in the Keys, owners Harry Appel and Jennifer DeMaria aren’t sure if they should fill in the hole, build the system, or just watch the rainwater fill it in as time progresses.

Monroe County has been discussing developing a central sewer system to serve a regional area that spans Lower Sugarloaf Key to Big Pine Key for about six years, giving up a plan to build single- or dual-island collection systems.

During the entire time of that discussion, until last month, the owners of Deer Run Bed and Breakfast on Long Beach Road in Big Pine Key have been told that their facility, which is already a low-water use facility with composting toilets and recycled treated water, would not be one of those included on the central pipes when they begin to go into the ground.

In January that all changed, and now the two have been informed by county and Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority officials that their facility will indeed be part of the central system.

For the years in which the two knew, knew based on both verbal affirmations and letters from local wastewater officials, that they were not to be included in the eventual central system, they have been steadily upgrading their waste treatment to be more environmentally friendly.

Last year they decided to put an addition on the B&B for their own living quarters, 750 square feet of personal space with direct access to their guest rooms.

Because a state mandate requires all new wastewater treatment plants, of whatever size, be able to meet stringent new effluent criteria, they were told that in order to get the building permits for the addition, they would first have to get the approval from the Department of Health to install a criteria-compliant on-site system.

“We applied for that permit in September last year,” said Appel. “After several rounds of back and forth with changes and revisions, DOH issued the permit in October.”

Aside from the permit costs of more than $500 for DOH approval, the two also shelled out nearly $10,000 in engineering fees and about $2,000 more in miscellaneous expenses that included digging the hole, moving their garden, transplanting trees and generally making the property ready for the new waste treatment system to be dropped in the ground.

“Before we could get the system in place we had some infrastructure work to do,” said Appel. “But that was fine because it is our intention to be as green as possible and this new system helps us accomplish that. And it also, supposedly, allowed us to meet the state mandate for effluent criteria.”

Just before the DOH permit was issued, and well before the county changed their status from non-central to central system, Appel said he again called county and FKAA officials to verify the property was indeed a “cold spot” where central pipes would not run.

The answer was affirmative.

So they ordered the system, expended more money.

And now suddenly, they are potentially out more than $12,000 in pre-installation costs to meet county and state rules, for a system that, if they put it in the ground, they will have to abandon in about two years. And add to that the cost of the system itself and the installation.

“I feel as though someone just stole money from me,” said Appel.

The county won’t issue a building permit for the addition until a larger, compliant system has been installed and approved by DOH, even though the addition, “will add nothing to the waste flow,” said Appel.

“I should have been in my own living quarters by now, with a property ready to receive guests, instead of staring at a hole full of water,” said DeMaria.

She says she feels as though the county deliberately slowed the issuance of the permit because the powers-that-be were aware that Long Beach Road would indeed be added to the central system.

They have voiced their concerns to county and FKAA officials, to the point where, “FKAA won’t even return our calls anymore,” said Appel.

He said he is also getting the runaround from county officials who promised him he could go ahead with a compliant system with no fear of being forced to tear it out.

Their situation was the topic of a discussion at last month’s Board of County Commissioners meeting, along with about a dozen other properties where compliant on-site systems have been installed relying on maps that showed they wouldn’t be part of the central system.

The BOCC was quite blunt when it told staff it expected to see some program in place, soon, to deal with those issues.

Appel said he was told it would come up Wednesday at the February BOCC meeting.

It didn’t.

“I was livid,” he said. “Somebody is going to have to find some way to either reimburse our costs, or let us put in a system that is better for the environment than a central system anyway and let us operate it until it fails.”

For being proactive and beating the state-mandated deadline of December 2015 by more than two years, “We have been bushwhacked,” said Appel.

County officials were aware of the problems in having properties where owners were forced to install 2015-compliant systems based on being off the central system and are now included due to the last-minute change.

In addition to the $12,000-plus the couple has already spent, if they are included in the central system, they will have to cough up at least $4,500 in hook up fees, maybe more because they are a residential property and their fee is based on water flow, just like every other property on the Cudjoe Regional.

“Just tell me before I spend all this money that you’re going to add me to the central plant,” said Appel.

Even though staff members have been told by the BOCC to devise a program that gives some relief to others like Deer Run and some 55 other properties in a similar situation, nothing has yet been forthcoming.

“The last thing I want to do is take the county to court to do something good for the environment, and especially to have my tax dollars pay for the legal fees to fight myself in court, but I’ve been left with little choice,” said Appel.

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