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Reclaimed water fee roils Clearwater well owners who must pay

CLEARWATER — The city will run reclaimed water lines into several more neighborhoods starting next month, but home- owners who irrigate with shallow wells are upset that they'll have to pay a monthly reclaimed water fee like their neighbors.

At tonight's City Council meeting, residential well owners in the Coachman Ridge subdivision will ask to be exempted from the fee, calling it an unfair tax.

The fee is currently $17 a month but should rise a bit in October. Clearwater residents who have access to reclaimed water must pay this fee whether they hook up to the water lines or not. It's the same elsewhere in Pinellas County.

Until now, Clearwater has exempted well owners from the fee. But the city changed its policy last year, and it intends to charge hundreds of well owners the monthly fee when it runs reclaimed water into the following neighborhoods over the next couple of years: Coachman Ridge, Chautauqua, Skycrest, Glen Oaks, Palmetto and Clearwater Harbor.

Well owners in neighborhoods that already have reclaimed water will still be exempt. There are fewer wells in those neighborhoods, and the exemption lapses when people sell their homes.

Well owners also won't pay the fee in the Morningside neighborhood, because its upcoming but long-delayed reclaimed water project was already under way before the city changed the rules.

People with residential wells in Coachman Ridge — a subdivision west of U.S. 19 and north of Bright House Networks Field — are particularly upset by the water fee.

"It is an unjust tax on people who have wells and were not fortunate enough to be exempted," said Coachman Ridge resident Larry Floyd, who expressed the neighborhood's concerns at a recent City Council meeting.

Floyd said many in the neighborhood are retirees on fixed incomes. He handed over a petition signed by 72 people in Coachman Ridge whom he said had invested a combined $225,000 to install wells.

In response, city officials say the whole point of reclaimed water is to get people to use less potable water. They argue that using reclaimed water on lawns is better for the aquifer than pumping water from the ground, even if the well in question is a shallow one.

Reclaimed water is treated wastewater from toilets, sinks, laundries and showers. It's not safe for drinking or cooking, and is used primarily for irrigating lawns and landscaping.

"We need to save our potable water sources for drinking water and use a lesser grade of water for irrigation," said public utilities director Tracy Mercer.

That's why the steep cost of installing reclaimed water lines is subsidized by all Clearwater residents, said City Manager Bill Horne. And that's why well owners will be expected to pay for it as well.

Mercer noted that Clearwater is offering well owners a deal. It will pay them up to $600 to abandon their wells, will connect them to reclaimed water with no hookup charge, and will give them a $240 credit to cover their first year of reclaimed water fees.

The city has been phasing in reclaimed water, neighborhood by neighborhood, since 1998.

Pipeline crews will expand the system into Morningside and the Coachman Ridge/Chautauqua area, starting next month and finishing in about a year. They'll start in Skycrest later this year, Mercer said. The Glen Oaks/Palmetto area is to follow in 2010, and Clearwater Harbor possibly a year after that.

The city says all of those projects combined will cost nearly $27 million.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Fast facts

City Council meeting

6 p.m. tonight

City Hall, 112 S Osceola Ave.

Wells in areas scheduled to get reclaimed water

Clearwater Harbor: 27

Coachman/Chautauqua: 170

Glen Oaks/Palmetto: 119

Morningside: 80

Skycrest: 42

Reclaimed water fee roils Clearwater well owners who must pay 06/17/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 9:13pm]

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