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Residents reeling over water proposal

One poll shows 60 percent of homeowners want reclaimed water. But some claim their neighbors misled them in signing.

A plan to bring reclaimed water to Van Dyke Farms has pitted neighbor against neighbor in this subdivision and prompted nearly as many polls and petitions as there are residents.

"It's been very difficult, to put it mildly," said Jim Holland, the county's reclaimed water improvement manager.

Reclaimed water is not clean enough for drinking, cooking or bathing. But it can be used for irrigation, giving residents a less expensive way to water lawns.

However, before the county will bring reclaimed water to a neighborhood, at least half the residents must sign a petition in favor of the project, which county officials estimate would cost each homeowner $400 a year for 20 years, or a one-time charge of $4,000.

It's Holland's job to tabulate how many residents want reclaimed water and how many don't. In this case, Holland has had to field telephone calls from residents who say they want their names taken off the petition as well as those who have called to say they want their names kept on.

"I haven't run across this in any other subdivision," Holland said.

The controversy at Van Dyke Farms was prompted by the county's plan to lay a pipeline along Gunn Highway from Cosme Road to Van Dyke Road, making it possible for subdivisions along its path to hook up to reclaimed water.

The community investment tax covers the cost of bringing reclaimed water to a subdivision, but residents must pay for additional pipes within the subdivision and to their individual lots.

According to county ordinance, if at least 51 percent of the homeowners sign a petition saying they want reclaimed water, the County Commission holds a public hearing so residents in favor of or against the project can be heard. The commission has the final say.

But at Van Dyke Farms, some residents say their neighbors misled them.

"A lot of those petitions were signed under false pretensions," said Todd Burchardt, who wrote to Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman to protest the plan.

Burchardt said he is not against reclaimed water, but he said it makes more sense to offer it to subdivisions still under construction instead of requiring homeowners to pay the expense of retrofitting for it.

Joe Episcopo, former president of the homeowners association, agreed. He said, "The petitions are invalid. The community doesn't support it. On our independent poll we got 225 responses; 66 percent said they were against."

But resident Nancy Kamm said another residents' poll shows 60 percent want reclaimed water.

"Who knows?" she added. "Next week it could be something else."

Homeowners will meet next month to take a final vote, Episcopo said.

Episcopo, a lawyer, added a new wrinkle to the controversy: he says the association's deed restrictions require any project costing more than $10,000 to be brought up in a formal meeting with homeowners. Official ballots must be mailed to all homeowners of record eligible to vote, and at least two-thirds must vote in favor of the project.

Kamm, however, contends that since the reclaimed water project comes from the county, it does not qualify as a special assesment. Even so, she said,"The board voted to require two-thirds of the residents. We achieved that."

In the meantime, Holland says the county, which he believes has achieved a 55 percent approval from residents, will move forward with design work to give homeowners a better idea of how much the project will cost.

The project is scheduled to go before the county commission for a public hearing in May.

"We've discussed this over and over again," Kann said. "Water bills are so high, we're restricted on how much water we can use and when we can use it. The handwriting's on the wall. There's not an infinite supply (of fresh water)."

_ If you have a story about Odessa call Jackie Ripley at 226-3468.

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