NEW TAMPA — One day in February, irrigation crews for Nanak's Landscaping scoured the brick-lined property of Cory Lake Isles to put together a blueprint of the community.
They were newly hired, and wanted to inventory the sprinkler and irrigation systems to familiarize themselves with the landscape.
What they discovered baffled them.
A network of irrigation pipes ran beneath the ground, but they couldn't figure out the water's source. Meters that recorded water usage were missing. State-mandated back flows were nowhere to be found.
"Our teams are experienced. We are fully licensed. Been in business for 33 years," said Nanak's regional vice president Beau Bohannon. "We had never seen a setup like this at this scale or on this level."
When the pipes were being put in place, someone apparently tapped into the city of Tampa water main and hooked up sprinklers throughout the property. For as long as 10 years, water from the city was used to irrigate common areas in as many as 36 different locations.
And it was all free.
Now it looks like residents may have to pay up.
On Friday, leaders from Cory Lake Isles are scheduled to sit down with Tampa Water Department officials to discuss the issue.
The city says it wants to ensure this never happens again — and the city wants the money that is owed to it.
Cory Lake Isles taxing district president Kerri Ringhof, who was elected to the board last year, said homeowners had nothing to do with it. She wants the person responsible to pay, not residents.
Eli Franco, a spokesman for the Tampa Water Department, said it is unclear how much money is owed to the city. To determine an amount, the city plans to install meters and take four months' worth of billings to establish a baseline. City codes allow the Water Department to back-bill for up to four years.
The cost to install meters and cap any lines and the final usage tally will be billed to the development, Franco said.
Ringhof argued it's hard to know how often the water was run and for how long.
In the year she has been on the board, the state has been under strict water restrictions, so the sprinklers have not been on, she said. And they don't plan to turn them on any time soon.
"They're off now, so how are they going to get four months' worth?" Ringhof said. "You're going to get a zero reading."
Cory Lake Isles field manager Michael Cachon said the common areas make up about 230 acres. Roughly 60 percent of that is irrigated by four large wells. Metered taps irrigate another 20 to 30 percent.
The missing meters would have monitored water to an area amounting to about 26,000 square feet.
It's a relatively small space, Ringhof said, but a "nightmare" nonetheless.
"I couldn't sleep at night," she said. "I couldn't believe that we inherited this mess."
She says residents will be unhappy about the bad publicity for the community, but she was adamant the city be made aware of the problem as soon as she found out about it.
In fact, Nanak's contacted the city when it made the discovery almost a year ago. The Water Department sent out a worker to test the water's chemical levels and it was determined that it was coming from the city water supply.
But nothing happened for months until a reporter inquired. Franco said there was a miscommunication.
Ringhof, meanwhile, just wants to ensure that residents aren't punished for it.
"We've done everything possible within our power to bring this to light and get it resolved as quickly as possible," she said. "In my opinion, if anyone should be back-billed, it should be the developer. He ran (the sprinklers), knowing these things were not metered."
The developer, Gene Thomason, did not return a phone call, a fax to his son's realty office or a letter sent to his home seeking comment.
Thomason is the man behind Cory Lake Isles, a large plot of land off Cross Creek Boulevard in New Tampa that used to be a sod farm. About 20 years ago, he built 10 miles of brick road, lined the entrances with tropical foliage and dug a 165-acre lake.
From the beginning, Thomason ran the taxing district and owned the landscape company that manicured the lawns and tended to the plants across the 600-acre community.
But in 2008, Ringhof and two other residents soundly defeated Thomason's allies in a highly contested race that brought in new blood with a different approach to the taxing district. The new board chose Nanak's for its landscaping needs. That meant Thomason and his crew were out.
Nanak's, unfamiliar with the layout, set out to do a thorough inspection of the community. That's when it discovered something was amiss.
Cachon, the property manager, said when the community was being developed, the city came in and laid down a main line for water.
The line was dotted with curb stops, which can serve as meter hookups. Someone tapped into those curb stops without installing the meters at between 36 to 38 locations — mostly small strips of land throughout Cory Lake Isles at entrances and cul-de-sacs.
So how did this happen?
Franco said that typically, depending on the agreement, contractors pick up the meters and either install them or have city crews do the installation. The city follows with an inspection.
But the city can't find any inspection records.
"I don't know how the Water Department was managed 10 years ago," Franco said. "I'm not sure where the documents would be. Maybe boxed and archived somewhere. You can't put the entire puzzle together based on what's there."
Dave Tippin, who ran the Water Department for 29 years before retiring in 2003, said under his direction, the process ran like this: When someone wanted water service, whether it was a private house or an association, he had to go to the Water Department to fill out an application. He paid the fees, and the Water Department went out and tapped the water main, ran the service and installed a meter setting.
"If the Water Department doesn't have any record, that means it was never done," Tippin said, "because records are kept very well."
Tippin remembers when Thomason was developing Cory Lake Isles. The city installed the mains "like we do any subdivision."
"It was just standard," he said. "Of course, that was 20 years ago. It really does surprise me (to hear about it)."
Franco, meanwhile, said he's not looking for a culprit.
"I'm focused on a civil side, what the code allows us to do, which is to correct this," he said. "We're just getting started on this."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or firstname.lastname@example.org.