Okeechobee to restrict power to vacant lots

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee County commissioners want to close a loophole that some Prairie property owners have used to get around county code regulations.

At the May 14 meeting of the county commission, County Administrator Robbie Chartier said county ordinance currently allows property owners to run 60-amp power to a vacant property to run a pump for agricultural irrigation or to water livestock. She said the problems arise when people illegally hook up an RV to the power, or run electricity to a shipping container.

“The concern I have is most of them are smaller lots,” said Commissioner David Hazellief. “What you see is after they get the permit and the electric pole is in, the next thing you see is a container or an RV.”

The problem is widespread, he continued. “I’m not talking about just one or two, or 10 or 12,” he said. “I could show you over 100 of them.” He said it also happened with a larger track. The property owner put two RVs and two portable toilets on it. The commissioner said these people sign a paper that says the electricity will be only used for agriculture.

“I have been struggling with this for a long time,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper. “When these lots were being purchased because they weren’t making the taxes on it, then they started turning into these weekend vacation places for our friends with the four-wheelers and the side-by-sides all coming out and causing pure havoc out there.

“This 60-amp service is nothing but an excuse to come out here and park a trailer — and I actually recently had to run a guy off where I live because I said code does not allow you have a trailer here if there is no house, no structure,” said Commissioner Culpepper. What is even more frightening is they come out and “when they got done for the weekend, they hook their trailer up, pull up next to the canal and dump the (wastewater) holding tank into the canal,” he continued. It’s a health and safety issue, he said. People have animals that go in those canals. People use water from the canals to irrigate their properties.

If they truly want to have some animals on a small lot, there are companies that put in windmills that keep water in the trough, said Commissioner Culpepper. He said the 60-amp service for agriculture use is being abused.

“I think this is what is causing a lot of problems that we have on the Prairie for people who actually live there and have a legitimate home and have to deal with this,” said Commissioner Culpepper. “Weekend after weekend you can sit and watch the trailers come in with the four-wheelers and the buggies,” he continued. “The people who live out there, it has made their life a living hell.”

“It’s a problem,” said Bill Royce. He said in the vast majority of cases, the low-amp service to the smaller vacant lots is not being used for the purpose the property owner indicated in the permit application.

Mr. Royce said code enforcement follows up to let them know they are in violation, but the code enforcement process takes time. “Probably 50 to 60 percent of the cases are in Viking,” he said. He suggested the county restrict electrical service to lots smaller than 5 acres that do not have a building permit for a house.

Roy Griffin, code enforcement officer, said they have 136 open cases out in the Prairie involving the illegal use of low- amp power hookups. Most are small lots, but two are 20-acre properties.

“There should be a way of having it disconnected,” said Commissioner Hazellief.

The commissioners were also surprised to learn that the county health department, which is in charge of septic tank permits, has approved septic tanks for properties where people were living in RVs.

The county commission agreed to a three-prong approach to solve the problem:
• The county will increase the minimum acreage for 60-amp power hookups for irrigation or livestock watering to 5 acres.
• Code enforcement officers will work with the building department to disconnect service to those who are using the 60-amp service for anything other than the purpose stated in the permit.
• The county administrator will work with the Okeechobee County Department of Health to close the loophole so they don’t permit a septic tank unless there is a building permit for a mobile home or conventional home.

The commissioners agreed to immediately place a moratorium on new permits for 60-amp service on properties less than 5 acres.

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