PORT RICHEY — The proposed legislation seems to state the obvious: A developer in unincorporated Pasco County may connect to nearby county water and sewer pipes.
Do you really need a law for that?
Turns out you do — if you want to override contracts with cities and private utilities.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, drafted the Pasco-specific bill after hearing from the developer of Hampton Inn & Suites, a 78-room project on the east side of U.S. 19 just north of Ranch Road.
The project is in unincorporated Pasco County. But the city of Port Richey years ago claimed that property for its utility service area, a zone established in an agreement with the county.
As Fasano understood it from the developer and its firm, Spring Engineering, there were county water and sewer hook-ups near the hotel, on the same side of U.S. 19.
Port Richey's utilities happened to be on the opposite side of the highway.
But because of the city-county service agreement, the developer said it could not do the simple thing — hook up to the county system — and instead spent an extra $125,000 to connect under U.S. 19 to the city's pipes.
"That's one of the most ridiculous things I've heard," said Fasano.
It was too late for Hampton Inn, but Fasano figured there might be others to come.
"I'm not trying to circumvent the agreement," he said. "I'm trying to bring logic and common sense back into the situation."
But the situation isn't quite what Fasano thought, and his bill gives pause to local officials.
"If you try to pass state legislation to try to override our service agreement — you need to do your legal homework," said Jim Mathieu, the former attorney for the city of Port Richey. "I have extreme concerns that the state Legislature would overrule our contractual arrangements with the county."
Behind the city's insistence is a simple matter of economics: The city's utility department is a self-sustaining fund that needs customers.
In Port Richey's case, its lines go north on U.S. 19, almost to State Road 52. "It's a very large asset of the city," said Mathieu.
Joe Richards, an assistant county attorney, said he had seen a draft of Fasano's bill and suggested only that he add a provision saying that developers would be subject to county ordinances and standards.
But when asked if he thought the legislation would undo the agreements, he said: "I think, constitutionally, the legislation couldn't impair a legal contract."
Fasano said he ran the bill by Legislature attorneys, who found no problems. And he said no one from the county seemed to have any issues with it.
The lines between county and city utility service areas aren't as clean and clear-cut as they should be, said county utilities director Bruce Kennedy. The services areas are a product of a historical pattern that included private utilities eventually purchased by public ones.
The result is service areas that look like gerrymandered legislative districts.
Fasano said his bill would help eliminate the problems that the county and city have not addressed.
"To me, somewhere along the line, the county should have relooked at those franchise agreements," he said. "There should've been changes made to the agreement once Pasco County got the hookups within the area."
Kennedy said he'd tried in the past, but blamed the inaction on turnover at Port Richey City Hall.
"The parties that we were talking with left," he said. "We're not giving up on that. It's still on the to-do list."
Port Richey Mayor Richard Rober said no one has brought it to his attention in his nearly three years on the council.
The situation that inspired the bill, however, turns out to be more complicated than Fasano (and Kennedy, when initially reached for comment) thought.
Hampton Inn connected to the county wastewater system on the east side of the highway and Port Richey water on the west side, said Roland Dove of Spring Engineering.
Dove recalled a lot of back-and-forth between the county and city over who could supply what.
After months of delays, the city eventually agreed to allow Hampton to connect to county sewage, but the county decided its water lines near the property lacked capacity for the hotel, even if the city had relinquished its right to serve the property. (Kennedy later confirmed that the hotel is on county wastewater and city water.)
Fasano said Friday that was news to him. But he said other projects could benefit.
"The bottom line," he said, "is it was brought to our attention."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.