Florida Keys News
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Proposed reprieve causes rift

FLORIDA KEYS -- Companion bills working their way through the Florida House and Senate would make things easier for Islamorada and Lower Keys property owners who want to build homes now, rather than wait for functioning central sewer systems.

However, the bills are also dividing the two Keys governments that still have extensive sewer work to complete before the 2015 deadline.

House Bill 375 would allow property owners who have installed onsite aerobic treatment systems since July 1, 2010, as well as those who do so between up until a central sewer becomes available, to put off connecting to a central system until 2020.

In addition, the bill would allow property owners who do intend to connect to the sewer system in 2015 to install holding tanks or septic systems on their properties, rather than the more expensive and environmentally sensitive aerobic systems.

The companion bill in the Senate, SB 1160, also provides the extension to 2020 for those who have recently installed, or soon will install, aerobic systems, though it doesn't include the provisions for septic systems or holding tanks.

In addition, the Senate bill would extend building permits issued in the Keys between 2012 and 2016 for three years beyond their expiration date, a move that would more easily allow property owners to wait until sewer service is available before building.

Both bills have already easily passed multiple committee votes.

Monroe County, which is building the $180 million Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System, was the driving force behind the legislation. County Growth Management Director Christine Hurley said she and other county officials have backed it as an aid to homeowners.

Aerobic systems cost approximately $20,000 to install. Design and permitting for the systems, which are regulated by the state Department of Health, cost another $3,000 to $5,000. And as the law is currently written, even homeowners who expect a central sewer line to be available by move-in still have to go through the aerobic system permitting process just to start construction.

The bills would at least allow homeowners to get some extended use out of their aerobic systems, said Hurley, who explained that she watched how the process played out over the last few years in Key Largo as the sewer system came on-line.

The House bill, with its provisions for short-term holding or septic tanks, would also eliminate the need for any more property owners to install aerobic systems.

"I've been living though three years of seeing what property owners are struggling with," Hurley said of Key Largo. "I knew Cudjoe was going to start down this same path."

In Islamorada, however, where the town commenced construction of a $115 million sewer system late last year, officials aren't looking as kindly on the proposed five-year hook-up reprieve for recent aerobic system properties, village attorney Nina Boniske said.

"The village management and staff are opposed to it, because we believe that it is problematic because everyone in the village is being served," Boniske said. "For the state to now exempt certain properties after they mandated that the local governments create a system is really unfair."

Such an exemption, she added, should have been included in the 2010 law that extended the deadline for sewer hook-ups to 2015, if it was going to be created at all.

Boniske said the potential revenue impact isn't a reason for the village's objection to the bills. But, if passed, the bills could reduce how much the Cudjoe and Islamorada sewer systems take in during their first years of operation.

Properties that get the five-year extension would still have to pay the $4,500 assessment in the Lower Keys and Islamorada's $6,400 in assessments, but it's unclear whether they'd have to pay for the sewer service during the five-year reprieve, said Kirk Zuelch, executive director of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, which will manage the Cudjoe system.

Current policy at FKAA is to begin charging for sewer service shortly after the systems become available, whether property owners connect or not. The village plans the same approach for its system. But the equation could change for homes that can't be given a mandatory hookup order.

If there were revenue losses, it wouldn't be major. Monroe County Public Works Director Kevin Wilson said no more than 100 properties, probably less, out of the 10,000 property Cudjoe system would be eligible for the exemption.

In Islamorada, approximately 20 homeowners have put in aerobic systems since July 1, 2010, said Bill Brookman of county Health Department. Nearly 5,000 properties will be serviced by the new village wastewater system.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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