2013By Steve Estes
When 2014 dawned Wednesday morning, residents in the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater Treatment System service area were still doing what they started 2013 doing…questioning Monroe County and the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority on why the largest infrastructure project in the county’s history is being handled the way it is.
And as the year progressed, those questions became more pointed. But sewers weren’t the only things that topped the news cycles in 2013.
The year opened with pointed questions about the financing of the system,with those in the inner islands wondering why they were being charged for interest on their amortized 20-year assessments when the county had borrowed no money to date.
The Monroe Board of County Commissioners started the year off by increasing the size of the central collection system serving the Cudjoe Regional area after bids for the construction of the system came in about 15 percent lower than anticipated.
In the first month of 2013, commissioners agreed to add more than 150 users to the Cudjoe Regional service area, eliminating the on-site systems that would have been installed on those properties. Most of the properties were replaced with low-pressure grinder pumps, raising the number of properties to be served by that method to more than 2,800, and opening county and FKAA officials up to more questions about why so many grinder pumps instead of more gravity pipes. A question that would linger for the remainder of the year.
Continuing issues surrounding the potential electrification of No Name Key also remained with the dawning of 2013, although the island’s change from one of a mostly solar-powered community to one where Keys Energy poles dotted the skyline was well on the way.
Commissioners spent the early weeks of 2013 seeking information about the unintended consequences of allowing commercial power to the remote island off the north east shore of Big Pine Key, even as various legal actions were wending their way through the local and appellate courts.
One of those cases, a civil trespass action against Keys Energy for installing power poles without obtaining an easement from the county for using and it owned on the island was placed on hold in January by the local court until other legal actions could make their way to their respective decisions.
Utilities weren’t the only issues taking center stage early in 2013 as the BOCC began looking at some quality-of-life improvements for Big Pine Key.
The commission started the process of installing an observation pier at the Big Pine Community Park and turning the old swimming hole at the western end of Big Pine Key into a passive park for sungazing, stargazing and the education of bikers and motorists regarding the wonders of the Lower Keys largest island.
As the year progressed, residents of No Name Key took their frustration to more courts, filing a $10 million suit against Monroe County for emotional distress caused by the BOCC’s reluctance to just simply lift the rules against public utilities on the island and allow them to hook into the power poles already dotting the landscape.
The circuit court agreed with a local court that the final decision on whether folks on No Name Key could hook into commercial power would rest with the state Public Service Commission, even though the PSC had already declared that it couldn’t overturn local ordinances because it wasn’t a court.
February also saw the completion of the National Key Deer Refuge’s predator management plan, paving the way for personnel to start trapping feral cats on federal lands in an effort to further protect the endangered Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit. The plan is to set a series of traps in areas know to be frequented by free-roaming cats and have the cats removed from those sensitive areas to the animal control shelter in Marathon. What the shelter chooses to do with the cats is up the shelter personnel, but the plan is to adopt those that can be socialized, ship those that can’t to a cat colony on the mainland, and euthanize those that are sick or diseased.
The BOCC has approved a new parking regulation that is aimed at getting commercial trucks and vehicles off the rights-of-way in residential areas. The new regulation also targets trailers belonging to the homeowner that can carry more than one ton. Under the new rules, commercial vehicles may not use the county rights-of-way at all, and the larger residential trailers may only remain on private property if they are in an enclosed garage. Of course, the county’s flood plain regulations make a detached garage nearly impossible to build because it must, of necessity be below base flood elevation, and very few folks want to build a garage that is limited to less than 300 square feet in size as it will barely hold two cars, won’t hold a crew cab pick up truck and any other vehicle, and would barely accommodate a boat of any size.
The losing bidders for the construction of the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System have taken the decisions to court, and in so doing potentially jeopardized the state’s $50 million in funding because there is a deadline by which the state’s money must be spent, and the court case might push the writing of those checks beyond the deadline.
The grass roots advocacy group Fair Insurance Rates for Monroe is asking the state-run insurer Citizens to fund a study that might once and for all answer the question about whether windstorm rates in Monroe County are higher than necessary. The group says it is the final push toward finally stabilizing wind rates here, at levels probably lower than the company has considered in the last decade.
County staff is doing the early work on a program to begin an aggressive program of land purchases with the intent to remove buildable lots from the county’s inventory. County officials are concerned that when the remaining Rate of Growth Ordinance allocations run out the taxpayer could liable for tens of millions in takings settlements for those who bought lots long ago with the intent to develop and didn’t get around to it before the state’s allocation pool ran out.
The county has asked the state Legislature to change the rules surrounding the sewer mandate so that property owners who were forced to install expensive aerobic systems in the last few years won’t be forced to abandon those systems in a few years and toss that money down the proverbial drain. The county is asking that systems permitted in the last three years be allowed to continue operation until 2020 to relieve some of the financial burden on those homeowners.
A local judge has tossed out contractor appeals for the bids awarded by FKAA to build the Cudjoe Regional sewer system, clearing the way for a $30 million check from the state to kick start the construction of the $150 million project.
The BOCC agreed early this month that the issue of whether county ordinances can be ignored so that No Name Key property owners can hook into power poles installed on the island by Keys Energy needs further study and commissioned a consultant to look into what lifting the prohibition against public utilities in or through a Coastal Barrier Resource System would do to the county’s protections for those environmentally sensitive areas.
A local circuit judge has kicked the civil trespass case by Monroe County against Keys Energy to the state Public Service Commission, declining to rule until that agency has weighed in on who has jurisdiction to approve commercial power for No Name Key.
The first step in that PSC decision process went down via teleconference with the state agency laying out some ground rules for what they would accept in arguments for and against electrification of the island.
County officials have begun lobbying Tallahassee for the authority to devise a potential special taxing district for the Keys that would allow for a dedicated revenue stream to purchase environmentally sensitive lands and potentially buildable lots to prevent future takings cases when the state stops issuing building allocations, estimated to be about 10 years from now.
Engineers have decided that by directional drilling directly underneath Niles Channel Bridge and other Lower Keys bridges, they can eliminate any issues with the county’s prohibition against placing public utilities to or through a CBRS area. Several Lower Keys bridges are inside those boundaries, with the exception of the rights-of-way along US 1.
Venture Out has filed suit against FKAA and Monroe County, seeking an agreement that will absolve the gated community from the need to continue to operate its own infrastructure. The park owns the water and sewer systems that serve the 600-plus homes and is asking FKAA to buy the existing treatment plant since the utility intends to only hook up pipes after the plant has treated the sewage anyway, and to take over the water system so that future maintenance would become the responsibility of FKAA and not the Venture Out homeowners. Neither defendant has agreed that such a move is a good one.
County officials have decided to ask the state for a lease on the old swimming hole property at the western end of Big Pine Key so that they can develop a passive park with water access at the location. The site was once a favorite gathering hole for locals but has been closed to public use for years sicne the completion of a rehabilitation evolution for a pod of stranded pilot whales.
The BOCC has decided that it will continue its objection to the electrification of No Name Key in front of the state PSC.
County officials are discussing the possibility of changing the way commercial development is handled, pooling the unused footage from recent years and allowing applicants to go after larger chunks instead of the current 2,500 limit. The new rules would also allow for existing commercial entities to grab up to 1,000 feet for expansion without competing with new businesses.
With money soon to be available from the newly extended infrastructure sales tax, county commissioners approved up to $5 million to conduct a series of pilot projects for residential canal restoration,the next step after sewers toward cleaning up near shore waters in the Keys.
Lobster season ended this month as a bust. The total catch was down, and boats have been pulling gear from the water for months already.
The Key Deer Refuge has temporarily closed the oft-visited Blue Hole on Key Deer Blvd. to the public because the large alligator that calls the area home has been becoming more aggressive of late. Refuge officials blame the behavior on feeding by humans. The gator hs been approaching visitors looking for a free handout.
The Public Service Commission has asked all sides for legal briefs pending a hearing on the potential electrification of No Name Key.
A year after Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Act, changing the rules for federally subsidized flood insurance, the ramifications of that are beginning to hit home with pre-FIRM homes facing increases in premiums of sometimes as much as 1,000 percent.
Chances are good that first year wastewater assessments for the Cudjoe Regional outer islands area will be lower than anticipated as the county has been able to borrow money for the project at a rate lower than anticipated.
Safe Harbor Animal Rescue of the Keys, which handles middle Keys animal control for Monroe County, has fired its executive director and closed the Marathon shelter, ostensibly because the facility is infected with kennel cough.
Even though the Cudjoe Regional wastewater system has barely broken ground, county commissioners have declared that they feel the system is fully funded from the extended infrastructure sales tax and have begun discussions on how to spend the roughly $180 million that will be left after sewer bills are paid.
After lying fallow for nearly six years, the current owner of the old Lucky’s Landing Trailer Park on Little Torch Key has announced a new development proposal for the waterfront land which will include 24 duplex condominiums, a pool, a commercial building and support facilities.
Because most of Monroe County’s federal money is of the fenced variety, earmarked for one specific purpose, the federal sequester cuts will have little effect for this fiscal year, but next year is still a work in progress.
The Key Deer Refuge is still studying a mosquito control proposal to deploy ATVs in environmentally sensitive areas armed with spray nozzles to lay barrier coats of bug killer on plants that separate residential homes from wildland.
County staff has come forward recommending that the county commission eliminate the CBRS prohibition against the extension of public utilities to or through those areas. But they also suggest that in order to maintain the same level of protection for the environmentally sensitive areas, the BOCC institute negative ROGO points for homes in the CBRS area.
As part of the financing plan for the Cudjoe Regional wastewater system, officials have built in a couple million bucks for commercial assistance funding. That money is designed to help those commercial properties that are slated to get gravity systems and will need an on-property lift station to fund those stations and avoid the thousands it would cost the property owner for their own lift station.
Monroe County has secured financing for the initial stages of the Cudjoe system that might save taxpayers nearly $20 million over the life of the loan, primarily for those who opted to amortize the assessment fees over 20 years, as the interest rate was cheaper than anticipated.
The staff of the state PSC has opined that Keys Energy should run electrical power to No Name Key if it’s requested, but also opined that it cannot force Monroe County to change its ordinance that prohibits the extension of public utilities to the island.
What the commercial stone crab fishing industry is calling the “the worst” season in recent memory ended this month just as badly as it started. Catch levels were down 40 percent from a year ago.
The state PSC has ruled that No Name Key should be allowed to have electricity supplied by Keys Energy, but also ruled that it didn’t have the authority to void Monroe County’s ordinance prohibiting such to the remote island. On the heels of that lackluster, middle-of-the-road ruling, the BOCC has determined that if No Name Key residents file suit to get power permits, they will not object. That means lights on for No Name Key using commercial power for the first time in just a few weeks.
Survey crews are currently making the rounds of Monroe residential canals, taking note of clarity, oxygen levels and generally, the poor condition of the residential canals in Monroe County as county embark on the first phase of what some believe will be a $100 million effort to rehabilitate residential canals throughout the county.
Hurricane forecasters are predicting the probability of a Monroe County landfall this season to be higher than it has been since the 2004-2005 season when four storms swept across the Keys each year. They are also predicting a heated season this year with higher water temperatures going into the start of the season.
After seven years under the gun, FEMA officials have announced that the county’s inspection program on insurance renewals for lower level enclosures will end next month. Although only 2,900 of the possible 5,700 homes have actually been inspected and certified compliant, FEMA has agreed that the county has done everything required of it to be able to declare the controversial program at an end.
For the first time in the 100-plus year history of the island, commercial electricity flowed to a home on No Name Key one day before the end of May. The local circuit court issued a writ last week that said the county had an obligation to allow commercial power to the island and the BOCC agreed not to appeal that ruling.
Big Pine Academy has leased the Kind to Kids Daycare on Big Pine Key with the intent to move the charter school’s VPK and three-year-old programs into that facility, freeing up the main building on US 1 for additional students in kindergarten through eighth grades.
Just as Monroe County has been proclaimed good stewards again of flood plain management regulations by FEMA, the insurance arm of the federal agency has announced that it will begin raising flood insurance rates in the county by phasing out subsidies for all pre-FIRM homes, and gradually raising rates for every home.
County officials have learned that they will not be required to devise another lower level enclosure program to snare the 2,800 homes that were notified of a need for an insurance renewal inspection that simply never responded, officially putting the seven-year-old program to rest here.
The Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce this week is on a search for a new executive director, having voted not to renew the contract of long-time director Carole Stevens.
As the Cudjoe Regional begins to get off the ground, there are still those who are facing a double-dip scenario—forced to put in a state compliant septic system within the last two or three years only to be forced to abandon that system in a couple of years when the county’s pipe reaches their front yard. Those folks have already been billed the $4,500 system assessment fee, and could face the possibility of paying the monthly base facility charge of $27 when a pipe appears in the street.
Just days after the first commercial power began to flow to No Name Key, residents were knocking on doors at FKAA asking to be included in the county’s central wastewater system. No Name has been and still is a cold spot for sewer service, meaning those homes will be served with on-site systems. Any change to that designation must be made by the county commission.
The BOCC has agreed to authorize up to $1 million from future capital funds to finally redevelop the old swimming hole on Big Pine Key as a passive waterfront park.
Officials at St. Peter Church were just a little bit concerned when they finally received their sewer assessment for the church property on Big Pine Key, especially when the bill said it would cost the church $132,000 to hook into the pipe.
On first go-round, the county commission has decided not to change the already finalized design of the Cudjoe Regional inner island collection system to convert grinder pumps to gravity pipes in Cudjoe Gardens locations.
New regulations for the use of out islands in the Florida Keys isn’t planed to affect the usage of a popular locals watering hole known as Picnic Island.
FKAA officials say that final designs will be done in a few weeks and actual shovels should go in the ground on the Cudjoe Regional outer islands collection system in a month or so.
County commissioners will get their first official look at staff proposals for purchasing potentially buildable lots in the Florida Keys, a move that is contemplated to avoid the possibility of tens of millions in land takings cases when the state stops issuing building permits here.
Dissatisfied with a BOCC decision last month to not consider converting properties slated for grinder pumps to gravity pipes, a group of Cudjoe and Sugarloaf Key residents plan to continue the fight for such, including the possibility of filing legal action.
The Key Deer Refuge has announced that it has two areas planned for major prescribed burns this year, both near the intersection of Higgs Road and Key Deer Blvd. where a burn went out of control just three years ago.
Even though FEMA has agreed that the pilot inspection program for downstairs enclosures has ended, it still intends to force some homeowners through the process by cutting off insurance subsidies for flood insurance unless the properties comply.
The Key Deer Refuge and Mosquito Control District have been unable to agree on terms to continue spraying adult mosquito killing chemicals on Big Pine Key so the district has been forced to halt all adulticiding on that island until the two sides can work out some protections for two endangered butterflies that are affected by the spray used by the district.
The Monroe Parks and Recreation Advisory Board has agreed to back the development of an amphitheater for the Big Pine Community Park.
After more than a decade of existence, the Big Pine Academy may be in line for a school zone crossing courtesy of the state Department of Transportation.
FKAA officials have decided to add generator inputs to the low-pressure grinder pumps that will be installed in the Cudjoe Regional sewer service area that would allow homeowners with their own generators to fire up the pumps in periods of power outages.
As lobster season prepares to open for another year, most connected with the commercial fishing industry are under the belief that this year must be better than last year when catches were below historical totals.
New species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act and a dearth of Tier One properties remaining that could possibly be developed on Big Pine and No Name Key may prompt the BOCC to eradicate the Habitat Conservation Plan and its attendant Incidental Take Permit for something that is a little less Draconian on regulations surrounding the most environmentally sensitive areas.
As lobster season opens, the first catches of the season have commercial fishermen and the industries that support them hopeful that a repeat of last year’s dismal season is not on the horizon.
County officials are planning to implement another lower level enclosure inspection program that steps up enforcement on structures found to be in plain sight that might contain illicit habitable space.
Monroe County has decided that it will not provide mitigation credits for FKAA when the utility starts running sewer pipes through critical habitat areas, a necessity resulting from the recent agreement between the county and US Fish and Wildlife Services on enhancing species protection.
The Monroe County Planning Commission has approved changes to the county’s CBRS overlay rues that would eliminate the prohibition against public utilities to or through those environmentally sensitive areas.
County staff is beginning to outline land acquisition programs for the BOCC that will take potentially buildable land off the books and maybe prevent at least part of what planners believe could be a $250 million bill when residential permits run out in 2023.
FEMA has lifted the building moratorium on critical species habitat, and as a result, the Monroe County Property Appraiser has begun adjusting what parcels formerly on that list might be worth, resulting in significant rises in property taxes for those owners.
Key Deer deaths by vehicle collisions has reached record levels, with 150 deer killed by car strikes in 2012. The Key Deer Refuge is asking the county to come up with a program to alleviate some of those human-induced deaths before it starts invoking penalty clauses in the Endangered Species Act.
Big Pine’s residential canals may qualify for being the worst of the worst in water quality, according to initial surveys by canal restoration consultants. A Big Pine canal system is at or near the top in every poor water quality standard used for the survey measurements.
Thew coming listing of two butterflies that potentially exist on Big Pine Key will probably mean tighter restrictions on development on the island that is already the most heavily regulated in a county that is the most heavily regulated in Florida.
FKAA has agreed that sewer pipes that have to traverse channels to reach the next island along US 1 will be placed using directional boring under the bridges. The additional cost is insignificant when FKAA officials compared it to the potential long-term environmental costs of a pipe break when that pipe is elevated over open water.
County Mayor George Neugent is asking staff to study locations where satellite building permit offices could be placed in the Cudjoe Regional sewer service area so that homeowners won’t lose so much time away from work by the need to travel to Marathon or Key West for permitting work that will be mandated by the county.
The last all-volunteer fire department in the Keys, Sugarloaf, has gone the way of history as the BOCC voted to transition the station to a partial career force over the objections of the volunteers who own the facility.
A group of Cudjoe and Sugarloaf Key residents have filed suit against the county and FKAA seeking an injunction to cease work on low-pressure collection lines until some definitive answer is obtained concerning the possible conversion of those areas to gravity pipes.
After the BOCC agreed to add Long Beach Road to the central sewer collection system, it prompted Little Palm Island to ask for a connecting pipe of its own.
The mosquito control district has turned down a temporary mosquito spraying permit from USFWS because it didn’t want to fund a drift study for the chemicals it uses to kill the insects. At a cost of $8,000, the study would have determined how far the district’s adulticide aerial sprays travel and what effect that could have on endangered species of butterflies.
Now that more information is available, insurance agents have announced that homes built after Jan. 1, 1975 will take a lesser hit on flood insurance when the NFIP begins a phase out of subsidized rates later this year.
As those flood premiums begin to kick in, Fair Insurance Rates for Monroe, formed to fight escalating windstorm insurance costs, has announced that it take up the fight against flood premium increases as well.
Three of the five worst residential canals for water quality in Monroe County are located on Big Pine Key.
Following the US government shutdown, the largest federal agency in the Lower Keys, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, has been forced to cut its staff to just three personnel.
The BOCC is expected to take up the general top question in the county right now, who gets gravity pipes and who stays on grinder pumps?
After a rather dismal structural report. Monroe County is finally getting things moving on major renovations of the No Name Key Bridge.
Hopes are high for the upcoming stone crab season, a welcome change after the dismal season last year that followed a dismal lobster season.
For just a mere $10 million in capital funds, the BOCC eliminated more than 1,100 grinder pumps from the Cudjoe Regional sewer system,and there are more questions out there.
Despite the early optimism, the new stone crab season opened slow.
County staff is supposed to be looking for a facility somewhere inside the Cudjoe Regional service area to put a building permit office to save homeowners in that area hours of time when they go to apply for county mandated permits to install county mandated sewer laterals to hoo into state mandated central sewer collection lines.
A Little Torch Key couple went boating into the Contents over the weekend and wound up bringing in a 27-year-old bottle that was part of a junior high school student’s science experiment almost three decades earlier.
Community meetings have started again on the Cudjoe Regional sewer system, but only one group of homeowners is invited to the latest sicne al the other areas have some changes coming as a result of decisions by the county to eliminate some grinder pumps.
There is hope that Congressional action will be taken to delay the implementation of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Act that will significantly raise flood premiums for thousands of homeowners in Monroe County.
FKAA officials expect to be bombarded with questions about why they chose grinder pumps instead of gravity for more than 1,700 homes on Big Pine and surrounding islands during two community meetings.
And while FKAA seeks answers to those questions, area residents have begun a grass roots movement to get the utility, and the BOCC, tro toss out nearly all the grinder pumps and go with gravity lines everywhere it’s possible from an engineering standpoint.
With about eight months to go before a more extensive repair project kicks off, Monroe County crews are putting some emergency patches on the No Name Key bridge.
Months after the county decided to transition Sugarloaf Fire from an all volunteer force to a partial career force, the two sides are still trying to hammer out a lease for the fire station that is owned by the volunteers.
A large percentage of Big Pine homeowners will have to suffer through an extra step in the permitting process next year when they apply for sewer lateral permits. They will have to go through a biological review to see if the work will have any impact on endangered species.
The good news is that the BOCC agreed not to saddle those homeowners with extra permit fees that could have run as high as $600 per, and voted to keep the entire permit fee for laterals at $70 as it has been for every other property owner in the county.
The state has agreed to add $1 million to the development pot for the future establishment of a passive park at the old Big Pine swimming hole.
Officials have announced that homeowners in the Cudjoe Regional service area should do some extensive homework before signing on with anyone for sewer lateral. The difference could be thousands of dollars in unnecessary construction costs.
A consultant report has suggested that the Big Pine Academy needs a school crossing one at the US 1 intersection to enhance the future safety of students at the school.
The group of Lower Keys residents still fighting the installation of grinder pumps in the Cudjoe Regional system has grown rapidly in numbers and is now hiring an attorney for a possible legal fight.
Due to unexplained slowdowns in the county’s project management department, Monroe is in danger of losing some state monies for various projects unless the county steps up progress and spends the several million that has already been allocated.
The Key Deer Refuge, along with various other stakeholder groups, is embarking on a new Key Deer recovery plan that will shape herd management decisions over the next 15 to 20 years.
Animal rescue workers have been inundated of late with a rash of injured pelicans who have been fond with their throat sacks slit, reportedly by humans with knives.
The BOCC was expected to make a final determination this month on what areas would remain on grinder pumps and what areas might possibly be converted to gravity pipes, but initial contractor numbers were so far off base that the decision has been delayed until a special BOCC meeting at the end of January.
The Key Deer Refuge and Mosquito Control District have begun work on an environmental assessment to determine how much, and how often, adulticide spraying can be done on Big Pine Key without major impact to two endangered butterflies that call the island home.
Following pointed questions from homeowners, county officials have stated that long-term maintenance of low-pressure grinder pump systems that will remain in the Cudjoe Regional service area will reside with FKAA, at least through the 99 years of the current lease.
A legal battle between Venture Out, Monroe County and the FKAA has been stalled for months coming into the closing days of the year. The gated community on Cudjoe Key is asking FKAA to take over their treatment plant and to install new water systems in the subdivision since each property is going to be charged the same assessment fee as stand-alone properties in the service area.
FKAA officials told a crowd of concerned residents that if the BOCC coughs up more capital money for the Cudjoe Regional system, they will gladly install more gravity pipes and do away with grinder pumps.
And as 2014 rolls into focus, we can expect more battles over sewers systems, land use and acquisition, mosquito spraying and the long-term management of the Key Deer herd.
And, oh yeah, sea level continues to rise.