BOCC action necessary for central sewers on No Name

By Steve Estes

Shortly after Keys Energy hooked up the first home on No Name Key to commercial power, residents who live on the remote island off the northeast shore of Big Pine Key were knocking on doors at the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority asking that their area be considered for connection to the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System.

The move had been predicted by many area groups who told members of the Monroe Board of County Commissioners that electricity wouldn’t end the battles over utilities on No Name Key.

The No Name Key Property Owners Association had as its mission statement when it formed about seven years ago to advocate for the inclusion of the island on the Cudjoe Regional central system, and according to members of the group, commercial power was a needed component for sewer system hook up.

Other than a brief period some six years ago, No Name Key has always been delineated a cold spot on the Monroe County wastewater master plan. Cold spots are those areas where system planners felt that the areas were too remote to serve in a cost-efficient manner with central collection lines. The hot spot/cold spot designation had nothing to do with water quality reports, it was simply a financial decision based on monetary decisions.

Other cold spots include Middle and Big Torch Keys, small pockets on Big Pine Key, more remote areas of Sugarloaf and Little Torch Keys. There are approximately 150 residential properties designated as cold spots where central service lines are not slated to run.

Instead, those properties will be served with on-site systems (septic systems) that meet state Advanced Wastewater Treatment standards. FKAA currently has a program where on-site systems can be subsidized for the property owner. The owner pays the universal $4,500 hook up fee to the county, which in turns uses the money to finance the collection system. FKAA installs and maintains the on-site system at its cost, and the property owner pays the same monthly rate as users of the central system.

Funding to pay for the remainder of the on-site system costs, estimated to be between $21,000 and $23,000 per unit, has been secured through an Environmental Protection Agency grant of $3.8 million.

FKAA officials said the money probably wouldn’t subsidize all the needed on-site systems when there were 288 of them, but after approval from the county commission recently to expand the central service area, utility officials believe the grant will cover any of the remaining cold spot properties that wish to utilize FKAA as their provider.

Property owners can opt out of the FKAA program, but they would then be on the hook to upgrade to state AWT standards on their own by December 31, 2015.

In an on-air interview recently, FKAA Executive Director Kirk Zuelch said that the advent of commercial electricity to No Name Key could change the planning direction for the island. Up to now, system designers had been trying to find some cluster system that would serve multiple homes and be able to run off solar power, or individual units that would run off the power supplied by the homes with either solar arrays or generators.

Now, said Zuelch, they could look at systems that require commercial power.

Individual on-site systems that require commercial power could still be problematic for system designers. There are 22 homes of the 43 built, with one more holding construction permits, that has expressed a desire to hook into commercial power, although onlookers anticipate that as many as 30 homes may apply for power permits in the near future.

That still leaves homes on No Name Key that do not intend to hook into commercial power and may not have strong enough solar arrays to support wastewater collection.

Most of the more remote areas in the Cudjoe Regional service area, which covers Lower Sugarloaf to Big Pine Key, are being served by low-pressure grinder pump systems. Those pumps are installed on the homeowner’s property, hooked into the home’s electrical system with a dedicated 220-volt, 30-amp circuit. The pumps grind the solid waste and pump it to the collection lines at the street. Property owners must grant FKAA an easement to install the systems and maintain them later.

Some No Name Key homes don’t have enough power from their solar arrays to run the grinder pumps.

And although there is commercial power to the island now, that raises the question of who pays for the installation of the power connection and where it would be located, and ultimately who pays for the power to run the pump if the solar homes choose not to connect.

“I don’t believe we can mandate that the solar homes on No Name Key hook into the commercial grid so we can supply them with wastewater connections,” said County Administrator Roman Gastesi. “That’s something our staff will have to research.”

Monroe County has an ordinance on the books that requires property owners to hook into the central lines within 30 days if a pipe goes across their property.

“That (hooking in) could be problematic if there isn’t enough power to the house to support the system,” said Gastesi.

County Engineer Kevin Wilson said that No Name Key has until now not been part of the discussions on the central systems because of the power issue.

But that’s not the only reason.

“No Name Key is a cold spot on the wastewater master plan,” said Wilson. “It would take an action by the BOCC to extend the central system to the island and include it on the central system.”

During the most recent round of additions to the central system where an additional 135 properties were added, planners used a base number of $21,000 per unit as a cut off, said Wilson.

“We estimated that on-site systems would cost about $21,000 on average. If we estimated we could reach cold spot areas for a price at or below that number, it made environmental sense, and fiscal sense, to add them to the central system,” said Wilson.

The original estimates to reach No Name Key with central pipes was $58,000 per unit. Bids for the development of the system came in about 14 percent lower than original estimates, which could potentially lower the cost of central pipes to No Name Key to about $49,000 per unit.

“The obvious conclusion is that running central pipes to No Name Key doesn’t meet the criteria of the decision tree that we used,” said Wilson. “It doesn’t make economic sense.”

“That would be the first question we ask when discussing adding areas to the central system—does it meet the decision tree,” said Gastesi. “If it doesn’t and the BOCC decides to do it, then do we change the decision tree on other areas?”

County officials are currently in the process of changing the land use code that heretofore had prohibited the extension of public utilities to No Name Key by virtue of its designation as a federal Coastal Barrier Resource System. While not every property on the island is in a CBRS area, any service lines would have to run through a CBRS to get to the homes, a practice the land use code also prohibited.

Officials expect that code to be changed by early 2014, well before actual construction would start on sewer lines anywhere near No Name Key.

With the lack of power then uppermost in most engineering designs, the county’s land use code did not prohibit the use of nutrient reduction cluster systems on No Name Key to meet advanced wastewater treatment standards.

With the installation of commercial power, such a system could still be the answer for the island using Keys Energy power from a public pole, said Wilson. “We haven’t looked at that very closely as yet.”

Like Keys Energy, the FKAA has state-granted authority to use public rights-of-way for utility extension without county permission. It doesn’t, however, have permission to indiscriminately use private property, a ruling confirmed by the state Public Service Commission last month in its electrification decision concerning No Name Key.

The state mandate Monroe County is under to have advanced wastewater treatment throughout the county by December 31, 20125 isn’t a mandate for central sewer lines everywhere. The mandate is for each property to be hooked into a system that supplies AWT standards for treating effluent. For those properties in cold spots where on-site systems are planned, the mandate is for Best Available Technology.

“If the mandate were for central systems, we couldn’t have any cold spots and the cost would be more than it is to reach those out-of-the-way places,” said Gastesi.

Based on original or current estimates, Wilson said the cost to provide central lines to No Name Key could be more than $2 million if the lower estimate is used.

That money, said Gastesi, would of necessity have to come from the infrastructure sales tax extension that voters approved last year.

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