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Dade City officials check legal status of private wells

DADE CITY — Whether you're a commissioner or commoner, if you have an illegal well, watch out.

The well police are coming.

City officials are poring over a list of about 100 wells permitted in the area by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, to find potential violators of a 1982 city ordinance that forbids the digging of wells.

City Manager Billy Poe said it would take about a month to determine which wells are within city limits and were constructed after the ban.

The investigation was spurred in part by allegations that City Commissioner Camille Hernandez has a well on her property that is in violation of the ordinance, which the commission recently voted to uphold. Hernandez has publicly denied having an illegal well; her husband has reportedly claimed it was already there when the couple bought their home.

"We were made aware of an issue and we're going to try and fix the entire thing, not just go after one person," Poe said.

The ban is in place mostly because of concerns about protecting the city's water supply and revenue made on utility services.

It has been challenged in the past, most recently by Hernandez, who at an October commission meeting stated that the ban on irrigation wells was wrong, "especially in this economy." She and two other commissioners voted to explore repealing the ban.

A few days later, a 2007 letter from former City Manager Harold Sample to Hernandez's husband, David, surfaced at City Hall stating that the couple had a "non-City water source" — a private well — on their Bougainvillea Avenue property. The letter was discovered when Commissioner Curtis Beebe, who wanted 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.

According to the letter, city staff found evidence of the well when relocating water meters for the Hernandezes' landscaping purposes in September 2006.

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 system.

The water was not chlorinated and could potentially seep back into the city's supply, he said.

The Hernandezes have refused to comment about the issue to the Times.

David Hernandez has reportedly claimed it was a pre-existing well that the couple uncapped after buying the home in 1997, but the previous homeowner said she was not aware of any well on the property.

At the most recent city meeting, the commission voted to uphold the ban, since allowing private wells could violate the bond covenants on money borrowed for utility improvements in recent years. Under the bond covenants, the city agreed not to allow competing systems for utilities.

That night, Commissioner Hernandez denied there was an illegal well on her property.

In May 2005, Swiftmud issued a permit for the Hernandezes to install a geothermal well, which works with a home's air-conditioning system and does not involve water, but the permit was canceled that July, said Robyn Felix, district spokeswoman.

Geothermal wells are permitted in the city only for a business or commercial enterprise, Naeyaert said.

Swiftmud officials say they follow state regulations in evaluating applications for well permits. It's up to the contractor to make sure the project is in compliance with all local ordinances.

The contractor for the Hernandezes' 2005 project was Ben Huss, according to Swiftmud. Huss could not be reached by the Times.

In November 2005, the Hernandezes discontinued their irrigation meter service, which offers reduced-price water for landscaping, according to Sample's 2007 letter.

The investigation is ongoing.

In their roundup of illegal wells, city staff will send violators a notice giving them up to 30 days to abandon the well, said City Attorney Karla Owens.

Wells built before the 1982 ordinance must be outfitted with a backflow protection mechanism to protect the water supply.

Those who do not comply could face a fine of up to $500 and a potential county court case. The city wants the wells abandoned.

"Our goal is compliance, it's not punishment," Owens said.

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

Dade City officials check legal status of private wells 11/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 7, 2009 2:02pm]
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