Residents continue no-pump mantra

By Steve Estes

While the Monroe Board of County Commissioners plans to listen at least one more time to arguments about which properties remain on grinder pump systems in the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System, some local residents plan to continue the fight well beyond that point.

A couple of months ago, residents in the Cudjoe Gardens and Upper Sugarloaf Key area successfully lobbied the BOCC to take them off the much-maligned grinder pump service for central sewer service and instead replace those pipes with a gravity system.

While the commissioners were on that decision, they also decided to convert four Big Pine Key areas from grinder pump service to gravity service.

And some thought that was the end of the discussion.

Not yet.

At November’s meeting, the BOCC asked county staff and officials from the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority to take one last look at similar subdivisions and come back with a recommendation on which ones can economically be converted from grinder to gravity to put the issue to rest and get on with the remainder of the project.

That might not be enough.

Little Torch resident Banks Prevatt has taken the lead on putting together a sizable group of residents, most of whom are currently slated for grinder pump installation, to take the issue all the way to the courts if necessary.

“Our ultimate goal is to make sure that if we have to do this (central sewers) that it get done right for the long-term interests of the residents,” said Prevatt.

He said that FKAA officials have stated publicly several times that they would rather preside over a project that includes almost exclusively gravity systems because they are superior in the long run to grinders. But FKAA doesn’t finance the project. The up-front financing is done by the county.

“FKAA has told us that it’s the financial constraints placed upon it by the BOCC that have resulted in this hybrid gravity/grinder system,” said Prevatt. “We (the voters) approved a sales tax referendum that I understood was to first fully fund central sewers in Monroe County, and then be used for other projects. In my opinion there’s $200 million coming that allows us to do this right.”

Prevatt lives on Pirates Road in Jolly Roger Estates. While all of the interior areas of Jolly Roger are slated for gravity pipe installation, Pirates Road, the access road to the rest of Jolly Roger, is scheduled for grinder pumps.

“The only information we’ve been given is that it’s cheaper to run grinders on Pirates Road because there are only homes on one side of the road. If you put gravity everywhere else in Jolly Roger, leaving out Pirates Road doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense,” he said.

Prevatt also pointed to Indies Road on Ramrod Key.

“Breezeswept Beach is going to be a gravity area, yet Indies Road, which is a few hundred yards away, is slated for grinder pumps, again because there are homes only on one side of the road. These things don’t make any sense,” he said.

He also suggested that Barry Ave. on Little Torch Key, directly across the highway from Jolly Roger Estates, might meet the density requirements for gravity installation.

“You come off the highway, there’s the church, then there’s the old Lucky’s Landing which is slated to be developed with 48 units, then you have the new Kiki’s Sandbar, a little way down the road you have a small, dense trailer park, and just beyond that you have Parmer’s Resort, not to mention the single-family homes along that road. If that’s not a dense area, what is?”he asked.

Prevatt claims that research done by a couple of groups prove that grinder systems are more expensive in the long run than gravity pipes.

“If the higher cost projections on future use are accurate, all of us, those on gravity and those on grinders, will be paying  higher rates in the future to keep up with the maintenance and replacement costs of the grinder pumps in this system,” Prevatt said.

After the recent changes by the BOCC, there are about 1,700 grinder pumps remaining in the Cudjoe Regional System, a number Prevatt and his group feel is too high.

“We know there will be areas where gravity won’t work. For those, we would like to see the cluster systems placed in the county right-of-way where they won’t intrude on private property. The electrical power can be pulled from the lines in the street and more than one house can be added to each system. That makes future maintenance and replacement costs certain to fall on FKAA,” said Prevatt.

Prevatt and several others, having watched the proceedings concerning the most recent conversions, came to the conclusion that only legal representation, and the possible threat of legal action down the road, is the only way to “obtain and maintain the attention of the authorities.”

But it will be an expensive undertaking to get legal representation so Prevatt and his core group have been soliciting like-minded homeowners for monetary commitment to along-term fight to keep grinder pumps out of the system, or at least off private property.

And the proposal has met with strong support, he says. He has already met with a local attorney that is willing to take on the project.

Prevatt originally asked anyone interested in the fight to contribute $200 toward the needed retainer of $2,000 to secure legal representation.

“The commitments to this issue came in very quickly. In the first week, we have secured over $4,000 in pledges for potential legal fees,” he said.

And if legal action in the courts becomes necessary, Prevatt said he believes raising money for the effort “will be effortless.”

Thus far the group has targeted only those slated for grinders but have drawn financial support from those on gravity pipes as well.

“Legal action isn’t the route we want to take,” he said. “We’d rather negotiate something that we feel is in the best interests of the residents here.”

And he says that the effort won’t be geared just toward a few select subdivisions. “We want to represent every property owner that remains on a grinder pump.”

Prevatt said the group is trying to build up a war chest now so that support doesn’t wane if individual subdivisions get converted and those homeowners drop out of the effort because they “have theirs.”

The effort officially kicks off next week when Prevatt says that the group’s legal team, some local attorneys have agreed to participate pro bono, meets with FKAA officials on “simple fact-finding.”

The county commission is expected to take up the issue again at its December 11 meeting, even as grinder system collection lines are being installed in streets throughout the Lower Keys.

Tom Willi, former county administrator and a licensed general contractor, said that his personal experience with individual grinder pump systems as part of a larger collection system haven’t been that great.

“The pumps don’t last that long and they do have issues when the power goes out or a storm floods the area,” he said. “The grinders are not as effective as the gravity systems. It will take almost a full-time crew for FKAA to keep up with the maintenance issues of 1,700 grinder pumps. Most of the ones I’ve worked with have been two-pump redundant systems. The ones planned for here are single-pump systems.”

Monroe County is under state mandate to install advanced wastewater treatment systems by Dec. 31, 2015. FKAA officials have admitted that the system won’t be fully ready by that date, and that every change from one type of system to another pushes that completion back even further.

“I don’t think the state will penalize the county if they take the time and money to do this right, up front, when the back end costs will be lower for everyone,” said Prevatt.


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