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City makes sewer line hookups mandatory

A new ordinance says all Tarpon Springs residents must connect to city sewer lines. But until more lines are built, not much will happen.

Used to be if the city installed a sewer line outside your house, you could pay about $2,000 to connect to the line or keep the money and use your septic tank instead.

No more.

City commissioners approved an ordinance Tuesday requiring all residents to hook up to the city's sewer system when it becomes available in their neighborhoods. The ordinance mirrors a 1993 state statute that attempts to eliminate septic tanks in heavily populated areas for health and environmental reasons.

About 25 percent of the state's population uses septic tanks, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. That number is 40 percent in Tarpon Springs.

"We've got a lot of state agencies questioning what we've been doing here for a long period of time," said City Manager Ellen Posivach. "We're being looked at by everybody."

But the city's effort Tuesday was largely symbolic. It could be decades before some residents have a sewer line snaking down their road.

Posivach said she does not know what it would cost the city to expand its sewer system to all residents now using septic tanks. But she is sure the city could not afford it right now.

"Financially, the city is not able to put 40 percent of the city on sewer any time soon," said Mayor Frank DiDonato. "We've got a lot to do, and it's going to take us a long time to do it."

The city has applied for a $950,000 state grant that would help finance sewer service in neighborhoods near Lake Tarpon. That area is considered a priority because leaking septic tanks have been blamed for heavy nitrogen and phosphorus contamination in the lake.

If the money is granted, design and construction of those sewer lines would take at least three years, Posivach said. Other Tarpon Springs neighborhoods may wait at least a decade before having to hook up.

"We haven't even reached the point where we've assessed which neighborhoods will go first," said Posivach, adding that the city will give priority to areas near bodies of water.

That provided some relief to residents like Tony Pikos, who just spent $2,400 installing a new septic tank at his Peninsular Avenue home. Pikos did not want to be forced to hook up to a sewer line any time soon.

"I'm all for cleaning up the city and doing everything right . . . but not after you install (a new septic tank)," Pikos said. "It's in now. Where do I go from here?"

Under the new ordinance, residents with properly functioning septic tanks will have a year to hook up to a sewer line if the line runs within 200 feet of their home. Those with septic tanks in need of repair must hook up to the sewer system within 90 days if the line runs within 400 feet of their home.

The city charges a $1,788 impact fee, a $200 connection fee and a $40 deposit. Customers outside the city limits pay 25 percent more. Property owners also must pay a plumber to run pipe from their home to the city's system.

The fees to the city can be paid during a two-year period or, if financial hardship can be proven, a five-year period. The city has not created criteria to establish financial hardship yet.

Several residents urged commissioners not to force residents with working septic tanks to hook up to the sewer system.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I'm 70 years old. I've been told mine will last my lifetime," said Peninsular Avenue resident Ruth Reasoner. "You just keep adding and adding. It's going to make a hardship for a lot of people. They'll start looking for another place to live."

Ring Avenue resident Jessie Burke asked the commission to make an exception in the ordinance for the city's poorest residents.

"In case of really severe, provable poverty, I do not understand why this city cannot delay sewering until the property changes hands or until such time as the septic tank has to be changed out," Burke said. "You could be victimizing the poorest of the poor."

Not every resident is dreading the arrival of a sewer system. Bill Card, who lives on Coburn Drive, said the city's decision is a good one.

"I would look forward to sewer coming down my street," Card said. "It'll increase my property values tremendously."

City Commissioner Beverley Billiris, who uses a septic tank, said Tarpon Springs needs to have its citizens on a central sewer system to protect its natural resources from contamination.

"If we lived in the boonies and nobody ever came near us, fine," Billiris said. "But these are environmental issues."

City Attorney John Hubbard said the ordinance does nothing to speed up expansion of the city's sewer system. It just lets residents know they must hook up when it becomes available.

"All it says is when we do get sewer to you, you're going to have to connect to it rather than ignore the sewer line," Hubbard said. "The real impact is not going to happen for a long time."