Okeechobee County discusses mandatory sewer hookups

OKEECHOBEE — Mandatory sewer hookups were a topic of discussion at the Sept. 14 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission.

County administrator Robbie Chartier said Okeechobee Utility Authority wants to do some expansion and they want to make sure the language in the existing county ordinance requires homeowners to hook up to sewer if the lines run close enough to their homes to do so.

She said the ordinance already says “shall,” which she understands is the legal language required.

“OUA wants to do some expansion,” she said. “They are looking at Treasure Island to expand sewer and get the nutrients out of the water and start cleaning things up.

“They are going to spend millions of dollars in that area. They want people to hook up,” she explained.

“I feel like the existing code is adequate to require them hook up,” she said. She asked for confirmation from the county attorney.

“I think it has been in the code since the Land Development Regulations were drafted,” said County Attorney John Cassels.

“Keep in mind, we should be doing it in all cases,” he said.

“Does that mean areas that have sewer lines should be required to hook up?” asked Mrs. Chartier.

Mr. Cassels said infill is probably as important as getting future connections.

He suggested they may want to specify the number of feet of line a homeowner would be required to pay for in order to be hooked up to the sewer system.

For example, for someone whose home is 400 feet off the road, it would be a greater burden than someone who lives 20 feet off the road, he said.

“Another question is if the line is across the street,” he said.

“I don’t think it would be reasonable for a homeowner to hook up at their expense to run a line across the street.”

Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said “folks on the coast are getting lots of money to put their homes on the septic.”

He said OUA has reduced their fees but the issue is the hookup cost.

“We looked at the type of areas in our communities that are near or on tributaries that fed directly into the lake,” said Chairman Burroughs. He said they hope to get some state funding to help with the sewer expansion.

“Anytime you go to the state to get an appropriation or grants they look to see if you have shovel ready property,” Chairman Burroughs said.

“We can divide Treasure Island up into a couple pieces,” he said.

“The other areas we looked at do not have the engineering completed and would have less opportunity for grants.

“I think OUA has demonstrated in a number of cases their ability to be flexible in charging to the customer,” he continued.

“This document in its current form meets the expectation that OUA wants,” he said. “It is going to be on OUA to go after the appropriation, along with the city. We all have to work together to get this done.”

Mr. Burroughs said there is a real problem with pollution into Taylor Creek, which flows into Lake Okeechobee.

“We have people in that location who have their washing machine water going into Taylor Creek,” he said.

“We need to be taking care of our own over here. If we don’t, fingers are going to continue to be pointed at Okeechobee County as the people who are polluting the water,” he said.

“We should be trying to figure out how to take care of our own areas over here.”

Commissioner Bryant Culpepper said people on the coast “are using us as an excuse so they don’t have to fix their problem. If we fix our problem, they can no longer blame us” he said.

He said he knows requiring homeowners to hook up to the sewer system will not be popular.

“It’s not politically expedient but it really needs to be done,” he said.

Commissioner David Hazellief said he supports “getting our septic tanks off polluting our water.

“I am all for putting sewer in Treasure Island and any place we can,” he said.

“I am concerned about homeowners who cannot afford to pay the hookup fees.”

He said OUA, the county and the city should seek grants to pay for the hookup.

“The state needs to step up and say if we are going to run lines in there, we should pay for hookup as well,” he said.

“We need to be looking at aggressively going after money,” agreed Commissioner Kelly Owens.

“If you don’t have a clause in there that says ‘mandatory,’ you will have people who say their septic tanks work and they don’t want to pay for sewer,” said Commissioner Culpepper.

He added that they should make decisions based on what is good for the next generation and not on the next election.

“Kicking the can down the road doesn’t fix it. The right thing is to fix it once and for all,” he said.

“There are many, many ways to skin this cat. What I don’t want to do is get it in people’s minds that it will cost $1,000 to hook up,” said Chairman Burroughs.

“We need to figure that out, come up with a way to pay it over time,” he said. “What we are doing today is looking at the language to make sure it is strong enough for them to move forward to see if there is an appropriation and/or grant money to get this done.

“We’re trying to give OUA some support that yes they have to come up with a plan with how they want to get the payment amortized, but we’ve got to help them in making sure people hook up to these facilities.

“It’s a balance in trying to do what is right for the environment, what’s right for the community and still make sure it will be financially feasible for the people involved,” he said.

“We should be helping ourselves and not worry so much about what the coast is doing. We need to take care of Okeechobee County,” he added.

We need to educate people on what the facts are,” said Commissioner Culpepper. “Once they understand what it is really going to cost, I don’t think it is going to be a life changer. It’s not want you want; it’s what you need. You need a safe drinking water system so if we get a flood you aren’t getting migration of pollutants from other people’s septic systems in your water.”

Okeechobee Utility Authority Executive Director John Hayford said the areas where they want to expand the lines include some vacant lots.

“If the water main is there when they build, they are saving the expense of putting in a well and a water treatment system,” he said.

“One of our biggest issues is if we install this infrastructure, we have customers using it. If we don’t have customers using it, it creates a long term maintenance issue for us.”

Mr. Hayford said those who connect to the OUA water system can keep their wells to use for irrigation as long as the well is physically disconnected from the house.

“We just have to ensure the well is disconnected so there is no backflow,” he said.

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