DADE CITY — The city's aging wastewater treatment plant is an essential facility that handles all the city's sewage, some 600,000 gallons a day.
It's also a relic of the old South. White officials decided in the 1950s to put the plant in the middle of Mickens-Harper, a black neighborhood across the railroad tracks on the east edge of town. Over the years, residents stopped hanging their clothes out to dry and stopped eating fish from the neighborhood pond, which they worried was becoming contaminated.
"When I was a little boy we smelled the sewage plant," said the Rev. Jesse McClendon of New Life Family Church. "It always represented an insult to the African-American community."
The latest affront came in recent weeks, as residents learned the city would expand the plant. The neighborhood baseball field would be taken out to make way for a 2-million-gallon tank for treated wastewater.
Plans were in the works for years and contractors were ready to bid on the work, but there had been no notice to the neighborhood.
Faced with a crush of angry residents, the Dade City Commission decided two weeks ago to suspend the project and look at other options. Commissioner Eunice Penix, who had an hourlong meeting last week with city officials and an engineering consultant, is confident the tank can go elsewhere.
"Bottom line is, they're not going to take the park," Penix said.
She and at least two other commissioners say they will support an alternative location at their meeting Tuesday.
Still, how did the project get so far without residents — and commissioners, even — knowing the park was in jeopardy?
And could the city move the sewer plant somewhere else altogether?
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The current plant sits within walking distance of dozens of homes. It is separated from the baseball field by only a chain-link fence. The plant was rehabbed in the '70s and again in the '90s, but it is starting to show its age again. So in January 2009 the city adopted a long-term plan to upgrade the sewage plant and expand its reclaimed-water system.
The 2-million-gallon tank would hold recycled water treated to meet state standards for irrigation. The city plans to pump 500,000 gallons per day to the Little Everglades Ranch. Co-owner Bob Blanchard said the Southwest Florida Water Management District encouraged the city to use more reclaimed water for irrigation to limit goundwater pumping.
"It's a conservation thing," he said. "The people in the Dade City area use a lot of water. This is a way for a large portion of that water to once again go back into the ground."
The tank was the first part of a planned expansion that would eventually take over much of the baseball field. But commissioners were surprised to learn of that particular detail at the meeting two weeks ago.
Penix said she remembers being told the tank would be underground. Commissioner Curtis Beebe said he wasn't "made very aware that it was a ball field at all." He thought officials were simply adding another tank to vacant city property. New to the commission when the plans first came before him, he concedes he probably didn't pay close enough attention.
City Manager Billy Poe said the plans have never changed. He said the ball field was one of hundreds of details in a complex repair plan. The issue only recently hit home when he updated commissioners a month ago with the news that the field was about to go.
"I don't think anybody ever truly connected that it is going to take the ball field," he said.
A close look at the long-term sewer plan — housed in a thick three-ring binder — shows that removing the field was always in the works.
A summary calls for "expansion of the existing plant onto the land currently occupied by the ball field." Renderings show a final expansion with several tanks in the outfield and a sludge dewatering facility near home plate.
At one point the plans call the field "unused."
That's not exactly how Mickens-Harper residents describe the field.
Atrbert Bass, 13, was raking leaves last week with a friend before daily softball practice.
"That's not cool," Bass said of plans to remove the field. "Where are we gonna play?"
Alfonso Flores, 57, has lived directly across from the field for the past eight years. "There's not much else to do around here, and the kids need to have exercise and fun," he said. "I watch them play soccer and football from my front porch every day."
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Commissioners will consider several options Tuesday for the reclaimed water tank. Building the tank beyond the centerfield fence is a preferred option because it saves the field and won't jeopardize a grant from the water management district. That grant covers half of the tank's cost, up to $1.9 million. The grant specifies that the tank must be placed at the treatment plant.
Another option, locating the tank on city-owned land off Summer Lake Road, could delay the project and make it more difficult to provide reclaimed water to other areas of the city.
Said Commissioner Bill Dennis: "We're doing the best we can short of moving the facility entirely."
Beebe also wants to improve the field's landscaping and add new facilities, such as a pavilion. Right now, there are weeds coming up on the infield, and there are two old buildings with graffiti on the sides and rusted tin roofs.
"I want to do everything we can to beautify and improve the park as it exists," he said.
Penix stressed that the tank will be enclosed and that the recycled water isn't hazardous. She also called for disclosing the plans to nearby residents, noise abatement at the plant and local labor and minority contracts for the work.
Back in 2009, when consultants reviewed the sewer plant's needs, commissioners faced two options: repairing the current plant and expanding into the ball field, or starting over with a new plant on the Summer Lake property.
Mostly because of the cost, officials picked the first option. Rehabbing the plant — not including the expansion someday needed to accommodate growth — cost $5.6 million. Starting over would cost $11.3 million. Tom Vill, a vice president with city contractor Baskerville-Donovan Inc., said the rehab option has a lower up-front cost and lets the city break the work into phases. That makes it easier to secure grants and loans that minimize rate increases.
Because of a dropoff in development fees, Vill said building a new plant somewhere else today could increase rates by $25 a month, roughly doubling sewer bills for the city's 3,000 customers. Compare that to a $3.68 monthly increase the city passed in 2009 to help pay for the repairs.
When planning for future growth, commissioners essentially face the same choice. Expand into the ball field or go somewhere else.
Penix said officials "assured me that the whole shebang will go when we get more rooftops in Dade City."
That could take awhile. Poe said he can't justify expanding the plant until the city gets another 2,500 homes. A move might not come for 20 years.
Fixing the old plant now and starting over later might have the largest bottom-line pricetag. But it wouldn't put the whole cost on current customers. By then, nearly 6,000 customers would help shoulder the cost, in addition to impact fees from new development.
Beebe said a $25 rate increase in this economy won't fly: "I think that's unpalatable right now in this environment."
But he added: "We need to start planning now for the relocation of the plant. I would support a plan that called for the long-term relocation of the plant, with a method of funding it."
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The Rev. Jesse McClendon of New Life Family Church was quoted in a previous version of this article describing the Dade City sewer plant as "an insult to the African-American community." The quote was incorrectly attributed to his nephew, who ministers at a different church.