Residents: Still no grinders

By Steve Estes

It was tempestuous crowd Monday night at the Lower Keys Property Owners building on Big Pine Key that hurled questions at representatives from the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority about the plans for wastewater service in the Cudjoe Regional System.

The majority of those in the standing-room only crowd had one mission, and that was to convince the FKAA that grinder pumps were a bad option.

That decision, said FKAA Executive Director Kirk Zuelch, is not entirely up to the utility.

“We would prefer to use all gravity pipes where it’s possible, but the cost was just too much for the county commission,” he said.

Estimates for an all-gravity system to serve the 8,800 equivalent dwelling units encompassed by the Cudjoe Regional service area were nearly $200 million.

That was too rich for the county, said Zuelch, so the BOCC asked FKAA to go back to the drawing board and come up with a system that would be cheaper.

Thus was born the hybrid gravity/low-pressure pump system that is in play today.

In the original designs for the system, covering the area from Lower Sugarloaf Key to Big Pine Key, there were about 2,800 low-pressure grinder pumps slated for use.

After pressure from residential groups who claimed that subdivisions were being split between gravity pipes and low-pressure pipes simply for the sake of cost of construction, the BOCC last month agreed to eliminate about 1,100 of those systems.

“We can’t eliminate all the low-pressure pumps,” said Zuelch. “There are just some remote areas where it’s too expensive per EDU to use gravity.”

What Zuelch says his staff and the contractor are doing to answer the backlash against grinder pumps is to create estimates to convert higher density subdivisions to gravity in the remaining service area.

“Once we have those estimates,and we should have them in about a week or so, we will present that to the County Administrator. The county staff will review those estimates and if they agree the conversion can be done effectively, the county commission has final say,” said Zuelch.

Monroe County is paying for the initial construction of the system. FKAA is the general contractor and eventual operator of the system.

But any changes the county might want will necessitate a redesign of any affected areas, and will probably push the project completion date beyond the state’s mandated Dec. 31, 2015 date.

“If the BOCC funds gravity, we’ll build gravity,” said Zuelch.

One of the primary complaints from attendees is that the grinder pump mechanisms are slated to be placed in private yards, while all the apparatus for gravity pipes is in the right-of-way.

FKAA engineering director Tom Walker said that “clustering” the pipes had been considered.

“But there were several reasons we didn’t go that route,” he said. “It would be far more costly per EDU to cluster the low-pressure systems.”

Walker said that with additional permitting costs, and the additional times against the completion date, as well as the need to make the manhole covers traffic resistant and the pits larger, “What was a $6,500 grinder pump in the yard became a $110,000 cluster system to serve maybe four or five homes in light density areas,” said Walker.

FKAA officials anticipate the backlash against grinder pumps will continue.

“It will be late spring 2015 before you’ll see anybody in the more remote areas of Big Pine doing installation work,” said Walker.

The more remote areas of Big Pine are where the remainder of the grinder pumps are slated, but other areas will also get the low-pressure pumps instead of gravity pipes.

Contractors are already installing low-pressure collection pipes on bayside in Ramrod Key, and areas on Little Torch that will have gravity should see dirt turning in about a month, said Walker.

It’s inevitable that some areas will have grinder pumps, said Zuelch. “What we want to do is work with the property owners to find the best placement of that system for the least disruption.”

Because the five-foot deep pits will be underground with just a lid showing the location of the pump pit, residents do not have to worry about yard setbacks when siting a pump pit, according to Growth Management staff.

Residents will have to supply a 240-volt, 30-amp power source so the contractors can mount the control panels for the pumps. FKAA pays for the installation of electricity from the pump to the outside home wall. FKAA also pays for the pipes from the pump to the connection in the street, something that could save homeowners a lot of money in the short term.

“If you have a long run from the house to the street in gravity line, first you’ll have a fairly deep trench, and that can get expensive. The pump lines can be shorter for the homeowner,” said Zuelch.

Residents will have to give FKAA an easement for the area of the pump pit and the the pipes, “So we can install and maintain the systems. I can’t own something on your property without a way to get to it to service it,” he said.

“If you have a unique geographical situation, call the FKAA offices and we’ll send someone out to work with you on the best options,” he added.

Property owners with grinder pumps will not be responsible for the electricity costs to run the pumps, he said.

“We will credit your sewer bill the average cost of running the pump,” said Zuelch.

FKAA had a meeting Thursday night at Vineyard Christian Church with property owners in what has been dubbed Big Pine Region 1 North. That area begins roughly at Pine Heights/Pine Ridge Subdivision north on Key Deer Blvd. and encompasses Port Pine Heights and Koehn subdivisions. That is the area where most of the remaining grinder pumps on Big Pine Key will be located and is the only area that didn’t need a re-design from last month’s BOCC decision eliminating the 1,100 pumps.

“We will be meeting with smaller groups from here out so we can talk about individual issues and better explain what it is you’ll see as construction progresses,” said Zuelch.

The remaining areas on Big Pine Key all are part of the conversion re-design. “We will meet with those areas as the designs become final,” he said.

Walker said that maps detailing the proposed service for each area of the Cudjoe Regional should be on the project website at anywhere from a few days to a few weeks from now.

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