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Water provider evades inquiries

The owner of the system that serves the Lucky Hills subdivision doesn't respond to residents or regulators who are investigating the utility.

There is a sure-fire way to get a wry smile, even a chuckle, from Lucky Hills residents: Ask if they have talked to the owner of WellAqua.

"I've called and called, but I could never get anyone on the phone," said Ann Gordon, a retired homemaker.

"Getting ahold of him? That's a lost cause," Elaine Wilmor added with a knowing grin.

WellAqua provides the central water for about 35 homes in Lucky Hills, a wooded Homosassa subdivision east of U.S. 19 near Green Acres Street. Residents say plainly that trying to reach WellAqua owner Jerome C. Salmons Jr., 75, is a joke.

The Crystal River number for WellAqua rings and rings with no answer. No one picks up the line at Salmons' Orlando home, either. The other contact number listed on residents' utility bills leads to an answering machine.

"I've left messages, but never have I had somebody return the call the same day," retired truck driver Thomas Bull said.

Salmons did not return calls made last week by the Times.

Officials from county and state agencies also have had trouble reaching Salmons, but the investigations and possible fines against his system are no laughing matter.

Robert Knight, director of the county's Office of Utility Regulation, said that WellAqua's phone goes unanswered and certified mail sent by the county comes back marked "return to sender."

"County law requires that we be able to get ahold of him during customer hours and that customers be able to get ahold of him during an emergency," Knight said. "Both of those are being violated."

Knight said he plans next month to ask the Citrus County Water and Wastewater Authority to charge WellAqua with several violations, starting a public hearings process that could lead to fines if the issues are not resolved.

WellAqua also raised eyebrows at the state Department of Environmental Protection when its well pump broke in January and the operator used an unapproved irrigation well to supply water to the neighborhood for three days until the new pump was installed.

System operator Ronald Annett sent a boil-water notice to residents and conducted tests to ensure that chlorine and bacteria levels were safe. But DEP environmental specialist William Dunn said the agency is still concerned that an unapproved well was put into service.

DEP has sent several warning letters to Salmons' Crystal River and Orlando addresses, saying he has 15 days to respond to the agency's concerns, Dunn said.

"If we do not receive a response from Mr. Salmons, we're going to draft a notice of violation, forward it to our general counsel in Tallahassee and let our lawyers take over the case," Dunn said.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud, also sent a letter to Salmons asking him to address the "health-hazard concern" at WellAqua, including the unauthorized well and garbage on the site, spokesman Michael Molligan said.

Salmons called Swiftmud and said he would clean up the site, Molligan said. But DEP officials have yet to hear anything from WellAqua, Dunn said.

"I would hope that perhaps he would read your article and contact me so we could resolve this," he said.

Misfortune at Lucky Hills

Perhaps developers were tempting the fates in the late 1970s when they christened Lucky Hills, a subdivision that went on to see its share of misfortune.

George Babcock envisioned the development as a mobile home park like the others around it, according to his wife, Isabel. But his Canadian partners, Donald Lucky and Philip Lebrun, overruled him and opted for a neighborhood with site-built homes, she said.

"Next thing we knew, they were putting in roads and a well system, and it cost them plenty to do that," Mrs. Babcock recalled. "The development was this little oasis amongst mobile homes, so it was kind of a lost cause from the beginning."

Babcock's partners left Florida shortly after construction started. Lucky returned to Ontario, and Lebrun went to International Falls, a city on Minnesota's northern border that, until 1991, was the home of the world's largest thermometer.

Their departure left the Babcocks behind to build out the subdivision and run the WellAqua utility.

Only a third of the 112 lots had homes by the time George Babcock died in 1992. A year later, Mrs. Babcock convinced Lucky and Lebrun that it was time to auction off the utility and the remaining lots.

The investors barely broke even on the land, and WellAqua sold for $10,000, a fraction of the $43,000 that went into building it, Mrs. Babcock said.

"I hated to see it go at the auction for the price it was going for," she said. "But I said, "I want out. That's it.'

"

The buyer who snatched up WellAqua and more than a dozen other Lucky Hills lots at that 1993 auction was Jerome Clifton Salmons Jr., a man who now owns nearly $300,000 in scattered properties throughout the Citrus County, according to Property Appraiser's records.

Salmons got off to a rocky start, Knight said, because he took over WellAqua without filing the proper ownership transfer papers with the state Public Service Commission, which regulated Citrus utilities at the time.

"Basically, he didn't know what he was getting into when he bought the system," Knight said. "He didn't know anything about the regulations."

The state worked with Salmons to file those papers after the fact, but it was not as forgiving when he failed to submit annual reports from 1995 to 1998, as state law requires. The commission fined Salmons $7,986, but he never responded to letters from the commission or the state comptroller's office ordering him to pay up.

The state gave up its collection efforts last May, after Citrus County set up its own Water and Wastewater Authority to regulate local utilities in place of the Public Service Commission.

"In this case, we really didn't worry about it because we had lost jurisdiction," commission staff attorney Jason Fudge said.

At that point, WellAqua became Knight's problem.

Kept in the dark

Knight immediately recognized that Salmons was not familiar with the Byzantine world of utilities regulation.

"He stepped into the throes of being regulated and didn't know what he was getting into," Knight said. "That's part of the reason we've been a bit lenient in taking the appropriate actions."

Knight gave a two-day workshop last October to show small utility owners how to keep their systems in compliance with county and state regulations. Salmons did not attend.

When Knight saw that the WellAqua pump was leaking last year, he spoke to Salmons in person about the importance of maintaining the system. Knight does not believe that Salmons followed through on his promise to fix the pump.

"Five months later, the pump failed," Knight said. "That's no surprise if you don't maintain the well."

System operator Ronald Annett said he checks the WellAqua site twice a week, but it is one of 34 systems he maintains under contract.

When the WellAqua pump broke Jan. 22, Annett had two options: leave the subdivision without water for three days before the new pump was in place or hook the system up to a second well that has not been maintained or approved for potable use.

Annett said he could not reach DEP officials or Salmons, who reportedly had a heart attack the night before. So Annett made the command decision to switch the system to the unapproved well, which he flushed and tested for acceptable chlorine and bacteria levels.

"At no time was there anything wrong with the water," Annett said. "What we did was not quite right, but what can we do?"

Annett sent two notices to residents telling them to boil their water for the next few days before drinking or cooking with it, just to be safe. But residents said they never received word when the boil notice was no longer necessary.

"I've got kids, and I kind of wonder, is it okay to bathe in it now?" said Sharon Bull, whose sons are 4 and 1{ years old. "We've kind of been kept in the dark."

Knight said Annett made the best of a bad situation.

"Given the choice of 35 homes with no water at all or a well that hadn't met DEP rules that he could test and make sure was safe, he made the right choice," Knight said.

Although the system is back on the approved well, Swiftmud and DEP are concerned about the status of the second well. In order to protect the water supply and the public, both agencies say the well should either be permitted and regularly tested under state standards, or abandoned and sealed off.

"It is not appropriate for it to be used for a backup water supply because there has been no demonstration of potability," DEP specialist Dunn said.

Fearing that the unapproved well might be put to emergency use one day, DEP sent Salmons a letter two years ago asking him to either maintain the well or close it off. Salmons never replied.

"We really do feel if we would have had this dialogue in 1999, we would not have had this situation in 2001," Dunn said.

A busy man

When the boil-water notice was issued in January and Knight was unable to reach Salmons to find out what was going on, Knight visited the WellAqua pumphouse and found more signs of disrepair: a broken fence, beer cans on the property and a site 70 feet north of the well where white paint had been dumped into the ground.

"It's being run so marginally that I now have concerns about the public health on that system," Knight said.

He notified DEP and Swiftmud about the mess, and Swiftmud sent a letter to Salmons asking him to clean up the site.

It wasn't the first time Salmons has been asked to pick up one of his properties.

The county Code Enforcement Board fined Salmons $6,500 in 1999 for maintaining "junkyard conditions" on another Homosassa property, at 2948 S Portland Ter., just north of County Road 490. An old mobile home, a station wagon blanketed in brown pine needles and a couple of towing trailers still sit at the property littered with machine parts.

Salmons never paid those fines, so the county attorney's office likely will try to foreclose on the property, Development Services director Gary Maidhof said.

In the case of the WellAqua property, however, Salmons has told Swiftmud he will clean up the pumphouse site, spokesman Molligan said.

Although DEP awaits a response from WellAqua, Annett said Salmons is aware of DEP's concerns and plans to address them.

"I talked to him about it just a couple of days ago," Annett said. "He's just a hard individual to get ahold of. He's very busy, and he travels a lot."

_ Times researchers Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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