ISLAMORADA -- A village plan to require approximately 500 homeowners to install and maintain grinder pumps that are to be connected to the town's central sewer isn't legal, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection informed officials last week.
So, instead, the village now plans to maintain the grinder pumps itself, a move that will require obtaining easements from property owners.
Through August and September, village officials fought off a backlash from property owners who are slated to be connected to a low-pressure sewer system, which requires the installation of grinder pumps. The owners objected to the proposal because, on average, it costs approximately $6,500 more to install grinder pumps and connect them to a low-pressure sewer line than it does to connect a home to the vacuum line that will service the large majority of village residences. The homeowners also objected to the grinder pumps because the pumps require ongoing maintenance, unlike a vacuum system connection.
The outcry had the village searching for an antidote as its contractor Layne moves forward with the $99 million central sewer project.
At a Village Council meeting last week, engineering consultant Tom Brzezinski, from the Wade Trim firm, announced the solution.
"What we found to be most cost-effective is implementing a villagewide cost supplement program," he said.
Under its auspices, the village will hire a contractor to install grinder pumps on private properties, relieving owners of that burden. The village will also use a contractor to maintain the grinder pump systems.
Property owners will still be responsible for connecting the grinder pumps to electricity and for connecting the pumps to both their homes and the low-pressure system on the street.
The Village Council quickly accepted the proposal, though with a caveat that Wade Trim and the sewer staff still look for affordable ways to reduce the number of grinder pump properties.
"We have solved the inequity," declared Councilman Mike Forster at the Sept. 26 meeting.
But what Brzezinski failed to mention during his presentation is that the village's hand had been forced by the DEP.
In fact, one day before the council meeting, staff members took part in a teleconference with DEP officials in the Florida Keys and the agency's regional office in Fort Myers, local DEP Administrator Gus Rios said.
Brzezinski later acknowledged the meeting in an email to the Free Press.
At issue was a section of the Florida administrative code which states that "alternative collection systems" must be centrally managed. Low-pressure sewer systems, serviced by grinder pumps, qualify as "alternative." In other words, the village must maintain the grinder pumps that service its system, even if they're on private property.
The DEP became aware of the discrepancy between the village sewer plan and state law two weeks ago after receiving a series of questions from Lower Matecumbe Key resident Sue Miller, who had been researching state code. Miller's home is slated to be connected to the low-pressure line.
Rios brought the matter to the attention of Islamorada Wastewater Program Manager Greg Tindle no later than Sept. 20, records show.
In an email last week, Miller questioned how it could be that the town approved a sewer plan that didn't meet legal muster. She called the situation "tragic."
"We should be able to depend on our wastewater engineers to understand the rules established years ago by DEP and design a system that meets the state requirements," she said.
Wade Trim, which has recently come under fire from Councilman Dave Purdo for its billing volume, has charged the village $3 million since May of last year to serve as watchdog of the sewer project. Wade Trim also designed the bid proposal the village put out in 2011 for the project and assisted in the analysis of the two bids the town received.
Neither Brzezinski nor Tindle returned phone calls asking for an explanation of why they didn't know that grinder pumps had to be centrally managed.
Tindle didn't offer an explanation either in a written statement he provided to the Free Press Monday. But he noted the situation is resolvable.
"Based on our discussions with FDEP, village staff and Wade Trim anticipate no issues with being in compliance with their regulations," he wrote.
Reached for an interview, Layne local program manager Wes Self said his company, which is known locally as Reynolds Water Islamorada, included maintenance of grinder pumps as an option in its proposal last year. The Free Press was unable to verify that assertion prior to press time.
In any case, the Village Council wasn't interested, Self said.
Asked if Layne had a responsibility to know that grinder pumps must be centrally managed, Self said, "maybe," before reiterating that the council was opposed to such a concept.
"[I]t was everyone's decision," he said. "They did not want us on private property. End of story."