03/12/2022

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Florida homeowners devastated by Hurricane Ian told to pay for water they can’t use or face $27,000 bill

NORTH PORT, Fla. – Homeowners in Holiday Park, a 836-home retirement community near Florida’s Gulf Coast, were devastated by Hurricane Ian. Now they’re facing another headache as they work to rebuild.

Residents were told they can either pay the city of North Port $55.95 a month to keep their water meters hooked up to the central utility system, even though they can’t use the water, or $77 to disconnect service and a whopping $26,900 to resume city water and sewer service once they have a livable home.

That’s if they hook up that new home before Feb. 1, 2023, when water and wastewater capacity fees increase and the cost jumps to $27,389.

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Kathy Armstrong, a seasonal resident from Nova Scotia, returned to North Port shortly after Hurricane Ian struck to find her home relatively intact, but much of the 55-and-over community in Sarasota County was in shambles.

“We’ve never had a hurricane hit Holiday Park in this manner before,” Armstrong said. “With so many of the units being so old, so devastated – they’re really uninhabitable.”

She said neighbors who were working on having the shells of their homes removed were hit with $7,000 and $8,000 bills. They thought shutting off utilities might save them some cash as they worked to rebuild.

Then they found that it would cost roughly $27,000 to hook up to water and sewer lines that are literally 10 feet away.

North Port looks into possibly changing fees

Strong winds from Hurricane Ian devastated Holiday Park, a mobile home community in North Port. Nearby residents said many elder residents age 65 and older live in the community, and that they were evacuated before the storm.

The bulk of the charge comes in the form of a $7.500 water extension charge and a $15,000 sewer extension charge.

“I thought, ‘How can that be, that must be a mistake?’” Armstrong said, adding: “I could understand if this was a new neighborhood and they were having to put in water lines.

“The water lines already go into the units; they’re right there at the road.”

North Port City Manager Jerome Fletcher said he was equally surprised when he learned about the fee to hook a home into existing sewer lines, based on existing city regulations.

The city staff has been researching when that hookup was codified and why it would apply to a reconnection to existing infrastructure – especially since that fee reflects the costs to extend water and sewer lines to an otherwise unimproved property.

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“It looks like this is going to be a policy discussion that’s going to have to change it – if the (city) commission deems it is no longer in compliance with their desires of how to charge for the service that they’re trying to accomplish,” Fletcher said.

The North Port City Commission meets at 10 a.m. Tuesday and the hookup fee can be discussed as a part of a scheduled item on city requirements to repair and/or rebuild hurricane damaged structures.

Asked specifically if he wanted to change that policy, Fletcher responded, “I think we’re in the process of evaluating the policy.

“It sounds like, based on what we have uncovered with the volume of the service charge, it seems out of line with what others might charge for that same process in a different city,” he added.

That policy applies to all structures in the city and if it changes, Fletcher cautioned there could be a revenue shortfall that may need to be made up.

“There needs to be some digging into the background of the conversation,” Fletcher said. “Most definitely I want to change it to make it a better policy

“But when you do that, you need to figure out why this was started in the first place, if it was started to pay for infrastructure, did you finish paying for it? Are you still paying for it?”

Fees for overall infrastructure

Jerome Fletcher addresses a gathering Monday evening, during a meet-and-greet with the two finalists to become the next North Port city manager. The North Port City Commission agreed to offer him the Tuesday afternoon, on a split, 4-1 vote. Fletcher is currently the assistant chief administrative officer with Montgomery County, Maryland.

Jerome Fletcher addresses a gathering Monday evening, during a meet-and-greet with the two finalists to become the next North Port city manager. The North Port City Commission agreed to offer him the Tuesday afternoon, on a split, 4-1 vote. Fletcher is currently the assistant chief administrative officer with Montgomery County, Maryland.

City spokesman Jason Bartolone said via email that the fees that would be assessed on a Holiday Park homeowner to reconnect to the system are not related to the work done on site.

“The extension charges do not pay for work to be performed on the site by the city,” Bartolone wrote. “As spelled out in the code, they are intended to recover and offset a portion of the capital costs the city has already incurred and financed for the installation of infrastructure citywide.

“As required by code and the city’s bond requirements, the water line extension and wastewater extension costs are a condition of connecting to the service,” he added. “We do not have the ability to treat this property any differently due to those requirements and the code.”

Those code requirements are tailored to provide a blueprint to hook up new lots to city water and sewer as part of a water and wastewater master plan designed to foster compliance to the Senate Bill 712, the Clean Waterways Act, which passed in 2020. While it does not mandate the city hook residents up to sewer, it does deal with clean water quality standards.

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Holiday Park, a 55-and=older manufactured home park in North Port, was devastated by heavy wind from Hurricane Ian.

Holiday Park, a 55-and=older manufactured home park in North Port, was devastated by heavy wind from Hurricane Ian.

The most current reference available for the septic-to-sewer plan – from May 2019 – noted that there are 11,158 parcels on sewer in that part of North Port, 16,332 occupied parcels on septic; and 28,332 undeveloped 80-foot by 120-foot lots originally platted by General Development Corp. that are grandfathered in for well and septic service, should the owners choose to build there.

While approving the first phase of that septic to sewer conversion, city commissioners had urged staff to trim that fee at least in half.

Utilities Director Nancy Gallinaro told a July joint meeting of the City Commission and the Charlotte County Commission that the target cost for new homeowners to hook into city water and sewer was $5,235.

Those connection fees – essentially designed to pay for the impact of a new home on the city water and sewer system – when applied to existing lots temporarily disconnected from water and sewer may also run afoul of a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that essentially said a governmental entity couldn’t impose such fees “unless there is a ‘nexus’ and ‘rough proportionality’ between the government’s demands and the effects of the proposed use.”

In 2017, developer Pat Neal of Neal Communities used that ruling as a basis of a lawsuit against the city of Venice that had assessed fees on landowners seeking to be annexed by the city.

Neal’s case hinged on the fact that the fees – which were agreed upon by previous landowners but not due until occupancy – had no connection to the specific impact of his development.

In a 2019 settlement, Venice refunded almost $800,000 in previously collected fees to Neal. That ruling also nullified an anticipated $12 million in future revenue.

Arguably, just a impact fees are only assessed on new construction and not the sale of existing homes, the impact of Holiday Park and other home sites temporarily disconnected from city services has already been paid.

Readiness to serve fee

North Port’s policy of charging homeowners a $55.95 a month “readiness to serve” fee to maintain connection to city water and sewer is one that is mirrored elsewhere.

For example in Venice at Bay Indies Mobile Home Park a readiness to serve fee of $17.97 for water and $20.07 for sewer, would be charged for each of the roughly 1,300 residences, according to Venice Utilities Director Javier Vargas.

Each of those homes have individual water meters. After Hurricane Ian, Vargas said city staff walked the entire park and people whose homes were uninhabitable had the option of turning off their meters so they would not be charged

“Most of them said, ‘Yes please do that,’” Vargas said.

In that case the readiness to serve fee is paid by the landlord, Chicago-based Bay Indies, LLC.

Once those homes are repaired, there would be no charge to turn the water back on, Vargas added.

In Sarasota County, according to Utility Engineering Division Manager Greg Rouse, the majority of the mobile home park customers are hooked up in a similar fashion to those customers at Bay Indies.

Sarasota County bills the owner of the master meter who typically will then collect fees from individual users.

For mobile homes on private lots similar to Holiday Park, if a home is damaged, the homeowner can suspend their service. If it’s uninhabitable, there is a $25 fee to shut off service.

The homeowners would pay a readiness to serve fee to cover maintenance of water and sewer lines and personnel required to operate the utility system.

The monthly readiness-to-serve charges are $15.86 for water, $19.41 for sewer, plus a $2.82 bill charge and a $1 wastewater quality fee.

It costs $25 to reactivate the service.

Or if the home is anticipated to be uninhabitable for a long period of time, Sarasota County Utilities would remove the meter for a .$25.00 service charge

It would cost $25 to install another meter and no readiness to serve charges would apply.

Fletcher points out that staff is still researching the origin of the policy in question.

“At some point in time – and we have to peel back the layers of the onion to get there – this had to be approved by the city,” Fletcher said. “The current commission, the current staff didn’t implement it, we are just enforcing it.”

He added that it shouldn’t take long to determine the origin and justification of those charges.

“What I don’t want to do is end up paying for the sins of my forefathers and having to answer for something that they did that they should have done differently,” Fletcher said. “I should acknowledge it but I shouldn’t have to pay for it – I should be able to fix it.”

“There may be a monetary repercussion and if there is, we have to accept it and own it,” he added. “Accountability is not a bad word.”

Earle Kimel primarily covers south Sarasota County for the Herald-Tribune and can be reached at earle.kimel@heraldtribune.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription to the Herald-Tribune.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Hurricane Ian: Florida homeowners face huge utility bill amid rebuild