Florida Keys News
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Homeowners ignoring sewer connection order

ISLAMORADA -- Residents in the areas that comprise Phase II of the north Plantation Key sewer system are in no hurry to hook up, despite a village mandate to do so.

Through March 17, just 181 of the 656 homes ordered to hook up had connected to the system, records show. All of the homeowners have been getting billed for sewer service since at least late November.

"We still get the revenue but the object of the entire exercise is to improve the nearshore water quality," Utilities Director Myles Milander said.

Under village code, which was revised last year to be more permissive, residents have six months to run a lateral line from their homes to the sewer system after it becomes available. This week brought the six-month mark for Phase II-C of the north Plantation Key system, which comprises 102 homes that are reached by heading south on Sunshine Boulevard.

Nearly 300 houses in Phases II-A and II-B, which included neighborhoods between roughly Coral Shores High School and Tavernier Creek, were required to be hooked up by November and late December, respectively.

But in those three areas just one-third of the homeowners have actually connected, leaving more than 260 properties in violation of the law. Homes that don't comply with the mandatory hook-up order are subject to code enforcement action, including fines and liens.

Meanwhile, in the final sector of the north Plantation Key system, an area including 258 homes on the extreme northwest edge of Islamorada, less than a one-fifth have complied since the system became available in late October. Those 200-plus homes have little more than a month before they too are in violation.

The reasons homeowners aren't hooking up are varied. Outgoing Councilwoman Jill Zima Borski, a central sewer proponent whose home is in Phase II-D, surprised many during the election season by announcing she hadn't hooked up because she could not afford to do so. Borski says she received an estimate of $2,000 on her connection. Some pay significantly more.

"It's kind of a matter of making hard decisions," said Borski, a freelance writer who recently lost a regular gig with the Ocean Reef Press. "Am I going to be unemployed for three months or am I going to be unemployed for all of 2010?"

Aside from money, some might be delaying their connection out of fear.

When Plantation Key Colony's Phase I of the north Plantation Key system first went on-line in 2006, it was followed by a spate of raw sewage back-ups into homes. And while there have been no such problems in Phase II, the sewer still faces a public perception problem.

Larry Barr, who lives in the Tahiki Harbor neighborhood near Tavernaero airport, which is part of Phase II-D, actually did attempt to make his sewer connection back in December. But when workers trenched into the ground they found that the vacuum can that was to serve his home was crushed.

Barr and nearly two dozen homeowners in his neighborhood have since had their connection order rescinded pending repairs. But he now says that with the village in need of a sewer maintenance truck, he's worried about hooking up even when he can.

"If there's a problem in the street, they can't take care of it on a quick response," Barr said. "I am going to [hook up], but I am nervous."

Precedent, however, says that should Barr, Borski or others like them decide not to connect, they'll have little to worry about from the village, which employs just one code enforcement officer. Forty-five months after the Plantation Key Colony system became available, one-third of the neighborhood's 463 homes still haven't connected. None has been cited for enforcement action.

Village Manager Ken Fields said no major changes are in store.

"They're past the deadline. They are technically in violation. But the village has no plan to do a huge code enforcement action to put people in compliance," he said.

Outgoing Councilman Dave Boerner, who connected to the sewer last year, said that since people pay whether they connect or not, it actually saves the village money when fewer homes, creating less maintenance costs, are connected.

But he cautions against anyone who would view the question of connection enforcement through such a lens.

"This is an environmental project and the only purpose is to protect our environment. Yes it's a problem," Boerner said. "If the only purpose is to make money, then no, it is not a problem."

rsilk@keysnews.com

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