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.
A sizable contingent of Lower Keys residents appeared before the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority Board last week to protest the installation of low-pressure grinder pump wastewater systems on private property as part of the now $170 million Cudjoe Regional system instead of building all gravity pipes.
After nearly a half hour of discussion by the residents on why grinder pumps weren’t the answer for wastewater collection in the service area from Lower Sugarloaf to Big Pine Key, the board tossed the issue right back at the Monroe Board of County Commissioners, as FKAA has done throughout the process.
Board Chairman Bob Dean said that the FKAA would prefer to use gravity everywhere feasible, but that construction funding is controlled by the BOCC.
“If they (BOCC) give us more money, we’ll be happy to do it (install gravity),” said Dean.
Monroe County is the funding entity for the initial construction of the Cudjoe Regional system while FKAA is the general contractor during construction and provides the long-term operations and maintenance of the system.
It is those long-term costs of operations and maintenance, as well as the perception from the residents that the grinder pump systems are inferior to gravity, that form the basis for most of the arguments against the pumps.
According to Kevin Wilson, Monroe County Engineer, the protests concerning grinders are based more on perception than actual system designs.
“The Cudjoe Regional system has a very robust design that will work,” said Wilson.
The National Key Deer Refuge and Florida Keys Mosquito Control District recently kicked off what both hope will be the process that leads to a long-term permitting solution for killing adult mosquitoes on Big Pine Key.
“What we want to do is get away from the need to permit mosquito control each year and develop a long-term management plan for mosquito control on the refuge that allows us to go five or more years,” said Refuge Manager Nancy Finley. “Planning on both sides will be better if we have a long-term basis from which to operate.”
Because killing mosquitoes has the potential to harm two butterfly species that are soon to be listed as endangered on Big Pine Key, or the potential to impact the habitat used by those butterflies, primarily croton, the district requires a permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that ultimately has oversight authority for the Key Deer refuge.
The most recent permit expired in June 2013 and the district has done no adult bug spraying on Big Pine Key since then. Very little was done prior to that either, as the current yearly permit contained some tight guidelines about spraying in areas where the insecticide used could drift into those places considered valuable habitat for the Florida Leafwing and the Bartram’s Scrub Hairstreak butterflies.
Basically, large-scale aerial missions over Big Pine Key have been all but eliminated for the last couple of years, and truck spraying in neighborhoods has been curtailed where refuge lands intersect with private lands in close proximity to potential butterfly habitat.
According to District Executive Director Mike Doyle, truck operators were forced to turn the spray nozzles on for residential areas where no habitat area might exist, and then turn them off in any areas where drift would hit refuge lands.
Efforts to get Congress to back off on implementation of the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012, a bill that could well cause an increase of millions of dollars in premiums for flood insurance just in the Keys, to say nothing of the thousands of other coastal communities affected, have stalled.
Sponsors of a bill that would have declared an immediate four-year hiatus on implementation of the potentially economically damaging measure have faced increasing resistance from their colleagues, primarily those in non-coastal states, to the delay of the implementation.
Over the course of that past week, wildlife officials have received reports about brown pelicans being cut by knives or other sharp objects across the pouch.
“We routinely see pelican pouches that are torn by fishing hooks, carcasses and lures, but we haven’t seen anything like this before,” said Maya Totman, director of the Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue on Big Pine Key.
Local charter boat Captain Jimmy Sharp Sr. said that he spotted one of the injured pelicans near Venture Out last week and managed to get a net over it to check its condition.
What was supposed to be maybe, perhaps, possibly, but then again maybe not, the defining discussion on whether any other areas in the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System might be converted from grinder pumps to gravity systems became instead a blank space on the agenda of the Monroe Board of County Commissioners Wednesday.
The BOCC has been wrestling with what areas to convert to gravity from grinder, or whether to do so at all, for the better part of three months. At the November meeting, the commissioners had requested that the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority bring out some pricing for converting neighborhoods similar to what the BOCC had already approved for conversion so that the board could decide, maybe, once and for all what else might be done in that realm.
But FKAA officials, who did not show up for the meeting, said they weren’t sure they had accurate numbers to give to the commission on Wednesday and suggested that the agenda item be withdrawn and returned next month at the January 16 meeting.
That move didn’t sit well with County Commissioner George Neugent, in whose District Two all of the Cudjoe Regional properties reside.
“I am against pulling this item from the agenda,” said Neugent. “We can’t continue to drag this discussion out and at least I’d like to see someone from the Aqueduct here to explain why we don’t have numbers we can work with.”
County Engineer Kevin Wilson said that his office received the conversion estimates Friday afternoon and immediately noticed “some anomalies” that brought the estimates into question.
“We’re not sure we have really good numbers for you, so we thought it best to withdraw the item,” said Wilson.
None of the estimates were available for public review.
Five-year-old Kendall spends a good deal of her spare time at the Big Pine Community Park, taking advantage of the really cool playground at the facility, and generally running off some energy, particularly during the long, hot, sweltering days of summer when school isn’t in session.
She and many of her other young friends meet at the park even when school is in session, grabbing an hour or so of playtime before the sun goes down and the dinner table calls.
Local US Fish and Wildlife service personnel, consultants from Penn State University and local activists plan to get together on a series of meetings beginning next month to flesh out an enhanced recovery plan for the endangered Key Deer.
The National Key Deer Refuge has been operating on a recovery plan for the Keys Deer that was developed in the last 1990s by researcher Roel Lopez. Using that general plan, the refuge has undertaken both water and habitat restoration project, and has completed at least two translocation projects that moved the deer from their primary herd location on Big Pine and No Name Key to Sugarloaf and Cudjoe Keys.
Though for a number of years the refuge has stood by its census count of 750 deer in the herd, most locals realize that anecdotal evidence says there are more deer than that roaming the two primary islands, not counting the 50 or 60 that now call the two western islands home.
The working group will be led by white-tail deer expert Duane Diefenbach, PhD, an adjunct professor of wildlife ecology at Penn State University. Diefenbach is well known in wildlife circles for his research on white-tail deer. The endangered Key Deer is a sub-species of the white-tail population.
Diefenbach says that the series of workshops will be to identify goals and objectives for maximizing the long-term survival of the species and minimize human-deer conflicts.
He calls this the first step to prioritizing actions to protect the Key Deer long term.
The research is being funded by the local refuge.
“The refuge is initiating this work to improve understanding and integration of community concerns and needs into the long-term management of Key Deer,” said Refuge Manager Nancy Finley.
A consultant’s report has quashed a local effort to get a school zone area implemented for the Big Pine Academy.
But the same report also details another way to go about accomplishing the same thing and help keep the children who attend the school safer while going to and from the facility on Big Pine Key.
According to a URS report last week, the implementation of a school zone at the Big Pine Academy would not meet any of the minimum standards set out by the state for such a facility.
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.
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.