County looks to state for sewer issue relief

By Steve Estes

Rather than take local steps to address some unique issues with the proposed Cudjoe Regional Wastewater system and its financial effect on end users, Monroe County is asking the state Legislature to help them out.

During the 15 or 20-year run up to the development of central wastewater systems in the Keys, property owners had some protection from forced payments because either the system was under construction or there was a state waiver in place that allowed folks to repair broken on-site systems if they knew the central pipes were coming, or replace them with a less-expensive interim system until the pipe came.

That protection did a disappearing act about four years ago, after all the systems except Cudjoe Regional and Islamorada were started and folks had a good idea when they were going to get a pipe in the street out front.

That left properties within the Cudjoe Regional without state protection from a state mandate to upgrade on-site septic systems by a 2015 deadline. And once a system went down, the Department of Health wanted compliance with the state mandate regardless of whether the property would eventually be hooked to a pipe in the street, or be on a stand alone septic system.

Any property owner that built a new home, either from nothing or as a rebuild, also had to put a compliant on-site system in the ground.

That has resulted in about 70 properties throughout the Cudjoe Regional area, from Lower Sugarloaf Key to Big Pine Key, with systems that already met the state mandate for effluent treatment but were going to have to go away when a pipe showed up in the street out front.

And many of those systems have been in operation five or less years.

And then there are those properties that have for the last 10 years been told they would not be hooked in to the central system because the cost to do so was prohibitive compared to the estimates for the rest of the system.

And then the bids for actual construction of the system came in and, voila, some areas where central pipes had not been contemplated suddenly could be added at a comparable price to those already slated for inclusion.

So the county decided to add those areas, about 134 end users in all. And there were some properties that had already upgraded to a 2015 compliant system, and a few where permits had been pulled and engineering done to put that compliant system in the ground.

Now those proactive folks face the specter of tearing out a $20,000-plus system after five or six years of operation and paying $4,500 in hook up fees to boot, as well as $3,000 or more in costs to install a lateral to join the pipe in the street.

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners decided that was unfair to an area where they had no choice in their place in the lineup for completion, so they asked for solutions.

County staff decided that Legislative action might be the first step.

So staff has submitted a Legislative amendment that first allows those folks with a Rate of Growth Ordinance allocation to build a new home to extend that permit for up to four years so they don’t get caught in the same snafu.

Secondly, the new legislation allows those who won’t be hooked into a central pipe to pull a permit for repair of the system so they don’t have to immediately upgrade their system to mandated treatment levels.

One of the reasons for that is that the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, the project manager for wastewater, has a subsidy program for on-site systems, those that won’t be hooked into a central pipe, of which there are some 150 in the Cudjoe Regional, and the program isn’t yet fully implemented.

Under that program, on-site users who opt in will pay the $4,500 hook up fee and FKAA will subsidize the remainder through a Department of Environmental Protection grant it received a couple of years ago.

Lastly, the new legislation allows property owners who were slated for central pipes and had to put in a compliant system between July 1, 2010 and July 18, 2012 to allow those systems to remain in place until Dec. 31, 2020.

“That allows those folks some return on their investment without getting tagged for around $30,000 in just a few years,” said County Administrator Roman Gastesi.

As a second part of the final rule, property owners who were added to the central system after assessments were issued July 18, 2012 and have to upgrade to compliant systems for whatever reason, including building additions and new construction, are also allowed to keep those systems in operation until Dec. 31, 2020.

Of course that Legislation won’t address situations like that at Deer Run Bed & Breakfast on Long Beach Road in Big Pine Key where the owners have already spent more than $10,000 in permitting and engineering fees for a compliant system after they were told they would not be added to the central system and that a waiver could now be granted to allow them to maintain their current system until the central pipe comes across the front of the property.

“We were told that county staff would have some offer of a solution for us by the Feb. 20 meeting,” said Harry Appel, co-owner of the resort. “We’re caught in limbo. Do we finish and tear out the system in two years or do we get only seven years return on a significant investment that it turns out we didn’t have to make?”

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