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Dade City commissioners would violate bond agreements if they lift private wells ban

DADE CITY — Those who oppose lifting the city's ban on private irrigation wells have raised various arguments:

Allowing private wells would thwart conservation efforts, cut into the city's utility revenue, put the area at risk for sinkholes and possibly even contaminate the water supply.

But a new concern raised Wednesday by city staff may trump all of those: Lifting the ban could land Dade City in court.

The city has borrowed money through bonds for utility improvements in recent years. Under the bond covenants, the city agreed not to allow "competing systems for utilities," which could refer to private wells, City Attorney Karla Owens said.

As of September 2008, the date of the most recent audit, the city owed $4.8 million in outstanding bonds.

The covenants on those also state that all city structures must hook up to the city's water system.

If the city violates the agreement, the entities lending the money could sue, said Jim Class, the city's finance director.

This could make the City Commission's consideration next Tuesday on repealing the well ban null and void.

"You would think that if it would jeopardize the bond covenant then they would say 'okay, never mind,' " Owens said.

The idea of lifting the ban, adopted in 1982, and allowing private irrigation wells has come up several times over the years. Opponents say the ban violates private property rights.

Commissioner Camille Hernandez brought the matter up again at a meeting last week, stating that it was "wrong for this particular government to impose this ordinance on our citizens … especially in this economy."

Her call to repeal the ban was backed by Commissioners Eunice Penix and Steve Van Gorden, who wanted to see the item on the agenda at next week's meeting.

But Hernandez didn't mention that night the existence of a private well on her property. That was revealed later in the week when a 2007 letter about the well to her husband, David, from former City Manager Harold Sample resurfaced.

The city is now investigating whether it was a pre-existing well that the couple uncapped after buying the home in 1997, as David Hernandez has reportedly claimed. If it predates the ban, the well would be grandfathered in.

The couple has refused to comment to the Times about the issue.

If the commission did consider repealing the ban, despite the bond covenants, it would be up to Hernandez to state whether she had a conflict of interest on the vote.

Conflicts occur when a commissioner has a financial stake in the decision.

Owens said she did not have enough information to recommend whether Hernandez should recuse herself, and the issue may be moot in light of the bond covenants.

"It depends on the facts put on the table and depends on how the board wants to proceed," Owens said.

"If there's nothing to vote on, there's no conflict."

If the Hernandezes are found to have an illegal well, they could face a municipal ordinance violation, which could lead to a potential fine of no more than $500.

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

Dade City commissioners would violate bond agreements if they lift private wells ban 10/21/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 21, 2009 8:58pm]
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