Residents mull legal action over grinders

By Steve Estes

Residents who live in the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System service area that remain on low-pressure grinder pumps after the latest round of conversions to gravity by the Monroe Board of County Commissioners say they feel as though they are running out of options.

The group, which has coined itself “Dump the Pump,” is made up primarily of residential property owners who are looking at having grinder pumps installed on their private lots rather than connecting to a gravity pipe in the street.

The group has already appeared before the Florida Key Aqueduct Authority board of directors and the BOCC, “And we feel like we’re chasing the tail,” said Banks Prevatt, a Little Torch Key resident, local realtor, and head of the organization.

Prevatt lives on Pirates Road, the entrance street to Jolly Roger Estates Subdivision on Little Torch Key. He got involved in the movement when he took a look at the system plans for the Cudjoe Regional and realized that he was on one of the streets in that area where grinder pumps instead of gravity pipes would be used.

He says that he was told by FKAA officials that Pirates had too low a density number because it had homes only on one side of the street, and that grinders made more economic sense.

Prevatt didn’t buy that explanation and instead asked FKAA to run an estimate to convert that one road in Jolly Roger Estates from grinder to gravity.

Before that could be done, however, the BOCC asked FKAA to run an estimate for all of the subdivisions, and/or pieces of subdivisions, where grinder pumps are expected to be used for a cost to convert those areas to gravity pipes.

FKAA brought such numbers to county staff a few days before the December BOCC meeting, numbers that staff said were so far off they couldn’t recommend even using them for comparison sake.

So, unhappily, the county commission passed on making any final decisions in December and instead will take up the matter in a special meeting Jan. 31 at 9 a.m. at the Harvey Government Center.

In the interim, Prevatt and his group said they have made no headway in their discussions with either FKAA or BOCC officials.

“We have talked to the FKAA board, they say they prefer gravity and if the BOCC will give them enough money, they would prefer to do gravity everywhere. We go to the BOCC and we’re told that FKAA designed the system. We’ve gotten nowhere,” said Prevatt.

Summerland Key attorney Lee Rohe has been retained as legal counsel for the group, and he says that frustration levels are getting higher.

“We’ve been trying to get the conversion numbers out of FKAA for a while on what it would take to put gravity in place of grinders for all the affected areas. We have been unsuccessful,” said Rohe.

Both he and Prevatt said they would like to be able to do their own evaluation of those numbers before the BOCC meets at the end of the month.

“We’ve asked. We’ve gotten nothing yet,” said Rohe.

He said that long-term maintenance of the grinder system becomes the burden no one wants to see. “There are less maintenance costs for a gravity system, fewer moving parts, and it always works. That makes it cheaper in the long run,” Rohe said.

Both FKAA and county engineers claim that there are some areas in the Cudjoe Regional, due to geographical constraints, where gravity systems simply wouldn’t work, and where running gravity pipes would be prohibitively expensive.

Prevatt says that his group understands there are constraints, “But we won’t know for sure what those may be until we get a chance to see the numbers.”

Because the group feels as though it is getting the cold shoulder from FKAA, “Our options are being limited,” said Prevatt.

He said the group is considering filing legal action against FKAA and the county. “It seems as though the only way we’re going to get their attention is to go the court route. We don’t want to do that, but we may have nothing left,” said Prevatt.

Rohe says that the research thus far shows that there are “a number of things wrong with the project.”

He says that the group isn’t concerned solely with any particular neighborhood or island.

“We’re not just worried about our front yards. We want a successful project that will help cleanup our near shore waters,” said Rohe.

County Engineer Kevin Wilson has said several times in public meetings that he feels as though the system as it is designed will work, and work well.

He is joined in that sentiment by County Commissioner George Neugent who has consistently leaned toward completing the project as currently designed.

“I tend to trust the engineers who have done this for a while, successfully in other areas, and probably will motion to maintain the status quo,” said County Mayor Sylvia Murphy. “But we have to hear what is said and evaluate that based on what we are told by our staff as well.”

Murphy said that she expects the conversion estimates for grinder to gravity to come in substantially higher than the average per-EDU cost of the system as designed today.

“I’m not sure I can vote to add that much more money from all of our taxpayers to satisfy what is a relatively small number of people in the large picture,” said Murphy.

FKAA officials told BOCC members nearly a year ago that if the commission wanted an all-gravity system, where logistically feasible, the county would have to add upwards of $30 million in up front capital costs.

The BOCC added $10 million in November to convert about 1,100 grinder pump properties to gravity pipes. That leaves just over 1,700 potential grinder pumps in the system.

“Sometimes we have to factor in the cost to the homeowner when we make decisions of this magnitude. In the short term, lateral costs, which will be paid by the property owner, may be much cheaper for grinder pump installations than gravity laterals. And that could be a significant cost burden some of the residents don’t want to bear,” said Murphy.

Rohe said that the “unenthusiastic” rate of returns on easement requests to FKAA should show officials that sentiment against grinder pumps on private property is high.

“It’s kind of like a large-scale protest against the use of grinder pumps,” he said.

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