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Big bills in pipeline for private landowners?

Cracked sewer pipes burden Pinellas Park taxpayers and the county system. The city is poised to order inspections and repairs.

By ANNE LINDBERGTimes Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000

PINELLAS PARK -- Saying that privately owned sewer systems are burdening the city's lines, officials are proposing a solution that could cost some property owners hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Pinellas Park sewer department wants the 66 landowners who have their own lift stations or sewer lines to have them inspected.

The inspection reports, along with a plan to correct any problems, would have to be submitted to the city. The property owner would have time to correct any problems. But if the problems were not fixed, city officials could take action.

It's unclear what that action might be or how much time property owners would have to get the inspections and make any repairs. That's being worked out before the ordinance is taken before the council for a final vote.

It could be three to four months before the matter comes before the City Council, Pinellas Park sewer director Bill LeVan said. Before that, officials plan to meet with the owners of the private systems to let them know what's happening and to hear their views.

"The exact reason (for this) is because I feel these systems, a lot of them, are old. They've been neglected," LeVan said.

Some of those systems are "leaking bad," public works administrator Marvin Hahn said.

Cracks or breaks allow groundwater to get into the systems, he said. Because those lines attach to the Pinellas Park sewer system, that "infiltration" gets into the city's lines. The city lines attach to the county's system. Thus, the groundwater travels into the county's lines.

That means that Pinellas Park is paying the county for taking away water that should not be in the system. That increases the cost to Pinellas Park taxpayers.

The county is urging Pinellas Park to solve the problem.

Also behind the proposal is the Department of Environmental Protection, the state agency that limits the amount of infiltration into sewer systems.

"DEP feels it is our job to police these people because they run into our system," LeVan said. "Pinellas County feels we should do it because our system hooks to their system. . . .

"The more infiltration we get out, the less we have to pay the county."

Most of those who own their own sewer lines and lift stations are larger property owners, like the Mainlands, Roberts Mobile Home Park and the Friendship Retirement Residence.

Some, like the Mainlands, own their own sewer systems because they want to own their roads. That way, they can control access to their community more than if the streets were public.

"They have own private roads, sewer system and water system," LeVan said.

It's unclear how many owners have been maintaining their sewer systems through the years, he said. If the lines need "major, major, major repairs," the cost could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The prospect of having to pay thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands to fix lift stations and sewer lines will, of course, make the property owners unhappy, LeVan said. But the idea was a hit with some council members.

"That's a yes. That's a yes. Do it," council member Patricia Bailey said. "If we've got a problem out there, we've got to lock the door on the problem."

Council member Chuck Williams agreed, saying, "Let's go for it."

Williams was especially pleased with the plan because it means the city will save money in the long run.

Council member Rick Butler was more cautious.

While this idea likely will spread to other municipalities, he said, right now Pinellas Park and Largo are the only two in Pinellas County that are readying themselves to force owners to repair their lines and lift stations.

"I think we're taking the leadership role in this and being the first guinea pig down the pipe," said Butler, who added that the city must keep from being too hard-nosed about demanding immediate repairs.

"My personal feeling is you could bankrupt a community," Butler said. "We may be opening Pandora's box."

LeVan agreed that a fix could be costly for some property owners, especially if entire systems have to be repaired. That's why the city could let them phase in the repairs over years, he said.

"I know what's going to happen and I understand," LeVan said. "(But) you have to understand. These people have been collecting rent for years without fixing the infrastructure."

One group that has been taking care of its sewer lines is the Mainlands. That development pays Joyce Velitschkowski of JTV Inc. to police its lines.

"They've got some issues, but they're addressing them," Velitschkowski said. "They've got us on a long-term program."

She said it's hard to estimate the costs of inspection and possible repair because that varies from system to system.

Some of the old systems don't have "cleanouts," connections that provide an easy way into the pipes, she said. For those systems that don't, cleanout installation must come first. Then if the pipes are dirty, they'll have to be cleaned before a camera can get inside to see if there are any cracks or cave-ins.

Once problems are located, it's also hard to guess how much repairs might cost. They won't be so bad if a chemical sealant can be used. The next step up is to line the pipe or part of the pipeline. At worst, pipes would have to be replaced.

If property owners decide they want to deed the sewer lines to the city, that can be done. But they'll have to fix the lines first, LeVan said.

That means there's no way out for property owners who may be faced with huge bills. But the city is prepared to be lenient, up to a point.

"I do want to stress that we don't want to beat people over the heads and cause them financial hardships, but we do want them to fix their systems," LeVan said.

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