LARGO — For months, the issue has vexed some business owners, created additional work for the city staff and consumed hours of City Commission time. Tuesday it will be on the commission's agenda again.
The issue? Grease traps.
In Largo, all businesses that prepare food are required to have a 750-gallon trap to keep grease from entering the city's sewer system.
But that ordinance has been the source of much debate for business owners, who say it is too strict and expensive, and city staffers, who say it is necessary to protect the sewers.
For small businesses like sandwich shops or the light-duty kitchen of a nursing home, 750 gallons for a grease trap is overkill, the owners say, as that capacity is more than 20 times bigger than the state requirement for many businesses.
And to install a grease trap twice the size of an average backyard hot tub can involve excavating part of a parking lot and cost $10,000.
In August, developer Anastasios Mihos and his tenant Gary Atkinson, who rents property for an assisted living facility, found themselves with a tough choice: spend thousands on a new grease trap or lose thousands in business by delaying the facility's opening to fight the rule. They chose to fight.
The matter came to a conclusion this month. The city allowed Atkinson his certificate of occupancy, provided he installs a grease interceptor with a 75-gallon-per-minute capacity — 10 times less than what the city code calls for, but twice as large as his current unit (which meets state codes).
Atkinson, who chose to move his 33-bed assisted living facility to Largo from St. Petersburg because of the lower rent, said he questions why the city isn't more flexible and why it maintains an ordinance that requires businesses to buy more grease trap than they need.
"I'm not a politics guy. I don't know why they didn't cooperate. Hell, this is a tax base," Atkinson said. "We can provide a lot of jobs, a lot of good jobs."
Like other business owners, Atkinson complains about a culture in Largo that is unbending to the needs of business owners.
At least one city commissioner, Curtis Holmes, agrees with the assessment. "That whole thing was mind-boggling. I never did figure it out. It should have been over and done a long time ago," Holmes said.
Holmes noted that the city let the Largo library cafe install a fairly small, under-sink grease interceptor, but if the cafe had been a private business, the 750-gallon rule would have applied.
"Why is it that everybody else has to and we don't? It strikes me as hypocritical," Holmes said.
City Manager Norton "Mac" Craig has defended his staff's work as necessary to protect Largo's sewer system, which in 2001 suffered from grease-clog overruns that incurred hefty fines from state environmental regulators.
But in response to the complaints, the city staff will brief commissioners Tuesday on possible changes to the ordinance.
For some business owners, changes can't come fast enough.
George Haber, on the verge of opening a sandwich shop, Havana Harry's, on Walsingham Road, has come before the commission repeatedly to seek an exception.
"It's just too great a disparity for me to go forward without at least trying to fight for myself," Haber told commissioners this month. "It's almost a $10,000 cost that I was not ready to incur."
After Haber's appearance before commissioners Jan. 18, environmental manager Davor Soldo looked into his case. He offered the same deal that the Atkinson facility got: an interceptor capable of handing 75 gallons per minute of water flow with a grease storage capacity close to 100 gallons.
But that contradicts city code as well — even though Largo has allowed a smaller unit called the Trapzilla-600.
Mayor Patricia Gerard said the city is working on a revision to the ordinance that may satisfy some of the complaints.
"Unfortunately people have to go through all this stuff to get us to take a look at it," she said.
Dominick Tao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 580-2951.