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Irate Oak Grove residents demand explanations

At issue is why residents were not informed of the county's lawsuit with Mad Hatter Utility over water and sewer service.

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- Residents of Oak Grove in Land O'Lakes are losing public water and sewer service on Monday in favor of private service from Mad Hatter Utility.

And the question on the minds of Oak Grove residents at Tuesday night's county commissioner meeting was: Why weren't we told of the possible changeover when we bought our homes?

Blame the builders, said county officials. Blame the county, said Oak Grove builders.

Representatives of the five builders in Oak Grove said the county was culpable for not telling builders about an ongoing lawsuit that ended with a federal court order requiring Pasco to transfer its pipes and pumps to Mad Hatter.

Commission Chairman Steve Simon would have none of that argument. The builders are laying a smoke screen to hide the builders' own mistakes, Simon said.

Simon asked for a show of hands in the audience to see how many people had moved to Oak Grove since Mad Hatter filed the lawsuit against Pasco in 1994. Nearly everyone had.

Builders should have revealed details of the lawsuit, which Simon called a "material factor affecting the value of real estate."

"That should have been made aware to you," Simon told the crowd.

Still, Kevin Robles, a representative of one of the builders, complained that Pasco hadn't done enough to protect residents from the Mad Hatter takeover.

The biggest complaint is over reclaimed water that residents buy for about $6 a month to irrigate their lawns. Many of the 300 Oak Grove residents bought their homes on the assumption the treated wastewater was a permanent amenity.

Despite an offer from the county to continue supplying reclaimed water to Oak Grove, Mad Hatter has balked so far. Mad Hatter owner Larry DeLucenay has suggested using potable water from existing shallow wells for lawn spraying.

"You as county commissioners are charged with maintaining the quality of life for residents of Pasco County," Robles said to applause from the audience.

County officials pointed out that Pasco has spent $1.4-million in legal fees to prevent a Mad Hatter takeover.

But federal courts ruled that Pasco, by providing utilities to Oak Grove and Denham Oaks Elementary School, had illegally cut into Mad Hatter's service area.

"We've been fighting this battle in Pasco County for seven years," said Marian Hale, the Clearwater attorney who has represented Pasco in court.

Some residents at Tuesday's meeting feared they would be without water during the transition that begins Monday.

But county utilities chief Doug Bramlett said the changeover is a simple matter of shutting off a county valve and turning on a Mad Hatter valve.

"There should be very little disruption of water service," Bramlett said.

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