Venture Out, FKAA agreement stalled

By Steve Estes

The longest running legal battle over wastewater treatment in the Cudjoe Regional service area is no closer to resolution as 2013 draws to a close than it was the day it was filed in the courts nearly a year ago.

The Venture Out homeowners association is still embroiled in a pitched legal battle with the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority and Monroe County over the procedure that will take place to get the 600-plus unit housing complex hooked into the collection pipe for eventual treatment by the Cudjoe Regional plant.

Venture Out initially protested the need to have each of the more than 600 properties in the gated community pay an individual assessment fee to hook into the county’s pipes. The argument was that the complex had its own recently upgraded treatment plant to serve the property owners there, and that the county was trying to force more than $2.7 million in hook up fees from the units there with plans to tie into the existing Venture Out system at two locations—or two hook ups.

But that isn’t the question any longer.

Stan Bowers, president of the Venture Out Homeowners Association, said the ongoing legal battle is now more about getting something fair for the residents of the gated community for what they have done in the past to meet the state’s mandate for advanced wastewater treatment independent of anything done by Monroe County.

“The short answer is that we’re nowhere in regards to any settlement of the suit form where we were months ago,” said Bowers.

“It appears that the county and FKAA would rather throw a pot full of money at attorneys instead of working together to find an equitable solution to our issues that works for everyone,” said Bowers.

Venture Out residents put several hundred thousand dollars into upgrading the existing treatment plant a few years ago to bring it up to state Advanced Wastewater Treatment standards. At that time, Monroe County still hadn’t agreed with the state to fund the Cudjoe Regional project because of a lack of funding.

Needing a permit to continue to operate its plant, Venture Out coughed up the bucks and met the standards.

But a state rule passed three years ago when it became evident the county wouldn’t meet the original 2010 deadline for upgraded sewer treatment gave the county the authority to develop a regional system and to force areas where a pipe went in the ground to hook in to the county’s system.

That made Venture Out’s investment moot in just a few years.

“We’re not trying to get a reduction from the $4,500 assessment fee per property even though the county won’t spend the money for individual hook ups inside the park,” said Bowers. “Our people have come to realize that the assessment will be paid.”

What the park wants from FKAA and the county is to not have to continue to fund operation of the treatment plant.

According to Bowers, plans call for the Venture Out plant to remain operational with the FKAA lines to connect after the plant has done its work. That ongoing cost to maintain the plant falls on Venture Out property owners.

“We want FKAA to take over our treatment plant operations and absolve us of continuing costs,” said Bowers.

Venture Out is also seeking an agreement whereby FKAA installs a new water distribution system for the park with individual meters for future billing. Sewer fees are based on the water consumption of each individual unit.

“Our water system is old and needs upgrading. To help our residents with the cost, we want FKAA to take over the water system, and the sewer system, after we spent lots of money meeting the mandate that we can no longer get credit for,” said Bowers.

But any talks toward a resolution of the suit have stalled, “for months,” said Bowers.

He said that FKAA officials claim the utility doesn’t have the money to purchase the existing treatment plant and put a new water system in place for the park. The county keeps saying that it isn’t in the business of installing water systems, that’s a job for FKAA.

“We think the solution is simple,” said Bowers.

He says that Venture Out residents, and the park through its common area charges, will pay more than $370,000 to FKAA in base facility charges and usage charges for water.

“It won’t take long for FKAA to get their money back on us. They have borrowing authority, and they can borrow against our specific rates,” said Bowers.

The county has tried to steer clear of the fight by claiming Venture Out is private property.

“We know that what we’re proposing would require easements and agreements. We’re willing to do those things,” said Bowers. “We’re willing to give FKAA the plans we have already commissioned for a new water system, done to their specifications, and ask nothing for that.”

Some Venture Out residents have complained that the county felt it had the ability to run sewer lines into privately held Shark Key, and that FKAA’s proposal to put grinder pumps on private property negates that portion of the argument. FKAA is also running collection lines for the Cudjoe Regional on private roads.

“Neither group is willing to come to the table and make any kind of counter offer, or negotiate in good faith with us to find a fair solution for what we had to do because the county wouldn’t,” said Bowers. “All we want is to get this settled in an equitable fashion.”

 

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