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Dade City commissioner's vote on lifting of well ban raises questions

DADE CITY — At last week's meeting, City Commissioner Camille Hernandez said the city should repeal its ban on private irrigation wells because it would save residents money.

"I do think this is in the citizens' best interest. We are the stewards of their money," said Hernandez, who was part of a 3-2 majority that took the first step last week toward lifting the ban.

"We were all put up here to do the right thing."

But what Hernandez didn't mention was a June 2007 letter from former City Manager Harold Sample to her husband, David, about the presence of a "non-City water source" — a private well — on the couple's Bougainvillea Avenue property.

Unless the well predates the city's 1982 ban on private wells, its existence could be in violation of city codes.

Camille and David Hernandez declined to comment. David Hernandez told a Times reporter who went to the couple's house to leave the property and never come back.

According to the letter, city staff found evidence of the well when relocating water meters for the Hernandezes' landscaping purposes.

Lennie Naeyaert, city engineer and director of public works, was not on staff at the time. He said that crews at the Hernandez property that day said that the house still had water, despite being disconnected from the city's water supply.

"All signs point that there's a well hooked up on the property," City Manager Billy Poe said. "We cannot without further review determine if it's a legal well."

Poe said David Hernandez previously claimed it was a pre-existing well that the couple uncapped after buying the home in 1997.

The drilling of private wells has been illegal in the city since 1982, mostly due to concerns about protecting the city's water supply and revenue made on utility services.

The ban has been revisited several times in the past, which Sample said was in part why the well was not addressed when first found.

Sample said that after the discovery, city staff had conversations with officials at the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, about private wells. There was discussion then about possibly lifting the city's ban.

Sample left the city manager position soon afterward and sent the letter to David Hernandez on his final day with the city.

"The purpose of the letter was to document that there was an issue that hadn't been resolved and there was an investigation ongoing, that's where I left it," he said.

The 2007 letter surfaced again late last week when Commissioner Curtis Beebe, who wants to keep the well ban, asked staff to review their files for any open issues related to irrigation wells, looking for citizen comments on the issue.

He would not say whether it was appropriate for Camille Hernandez to keep mum at last week's meeting about the well on her property.

There are too many unknowns at this time, he said. She may have already thought the issue was resolved.

"If she knew she was out of compliance and didn't raise it, then I think it's a problem," he said. "But I don't know if it's as cut and dry as that."

The city is investigating whether the well was built before the 1982 ordinance. If it was, it may be legal, officials said, as long as a backflow protection mechanism is installed to protect the water system.

Naeyaert said there was no evidence of such a device on the Hernandez property.

"If you have raw water that is being sent to the house, it could back its way into our system," he said. "That was my primary concern when I learned about it the other day."

Officials at Swiftmud, which issues well permits, said there were no records of a water-related well application at the Hernandezes' address in their files, which date to the late 1970s.

Commissioners Steve Van Gorden and Eunice Penix also supported lifting the ban on irrigation wells. The commission will hold a hearing on the idea Tuesday before a final vote Nov. 10.

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at htravis@sptimes.com or (813) 435-7312.

Dade City commissioner's vote on lifting of well ban raises questions 10/20/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 20, 2009 9:34pm]

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