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Summerplace homes move closer to getting off old septic systems

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of February 27, 2014)

The island neighborhood of Summerplace is one step closer to getting off environmentally harmful septic systems after the County Commission accepted a sewer engineering study last week and scheduled an informational workshop for residents.

The study, done by Schulke, Bittle and Stoddard, offered three alternatives to install sanitary sewers to handle wastewater from 270 homes in the area, ranging in cost from $3 million to $6 million in total outlay.

That could amount to a per-parcel cost to homeowners of $11,335 on the low end up to $22,325 on the high end, but Capital Projects Manager Arjuna Weragoda said the utility department is seeking grant funds from two sources to reduce the amount the county and homeowners would have to pay.

“We are applying for a grant from the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee in the legislature as well as a St. Johns River Water Management District grant.”

Weragoda said he is unsure how much the county could potentially receive from the legislature. The St. Johns money would come, if approved, in the form of a matching grant that would pay half the cost.

If it scores substantial grant money, the county will likely build the sewer system in the near future, but residents will not be forced to hook up, according to Weragoda.

“It won’t be a forced assessment, per se,” he said. “If we go ahead with the infrastructure, it will be available to people to hook up if they want; those who hook up would have to pay their ‘fair share.’”

Besides paying a pro-rated share of the cost of sewer installation, residents who connect to sewer would also have to come up with a $2,800 impact fee under current county statutes, but both amounts could be financed over a number of years for as little as $100 per month if the $3.45 million vacuum system alternative recommended by staff is utilized.

The role of seepage from outdated septic systems in the lagoon’s collapse came to light a year ago, when Harbor Branch research scientist Brian LaPointe released a study in March 2013 showing that much of the excess nitrogen in the lagoon comes from human waste. The nitrogen is a problem because it feeds algae blooms that cloud the water and smother sea life.

Lapointe’s study “indicated approximately one million kilograms [2.2 million pounds] of nitrogen per year are added to the Indian River Lagoon via septic systems,” according to county staff. “A well-designed centralized sewer system will prevent dissolved nutrients from entering the water table and ultimately help reduce nutrient loading into the lagoon.”

Summerplace – which is bounded by CR-510 on the south, the Atlantic Ocean on the east, Old Orchid subdivision to the west and Orchid island Golf and Beach Club to the north – is not directly on the lagoon, but its low-lying location, just above sea level, means nitrogen, bacteria, household chemicals and other pollutants that leak into the water table end up in the lagoon.

There are approximately 38,000 septic systems in the county, including several thousand on the island. Dealing with all those systems at once is not financially or politically feasible so county staff is starting piecemeal, looking for neighborhoods that are potentially high polluters that lend themselves to strategic sewer solutions.

“We chose Summerplace because of its proximity to the ocean and lagoon and because the county already has some infrastructure in place there,” county utility chief Vincent Burke said last summer when the sewer engineering study was commissioned.

The existing infrastructure includes some sewer lines and a pu       mp, commonly called a lift station, at the intersection of CR-510 and A1A that captures sewage from Wabasso Beach Park and a limited number of nearby lots and channels it south to the Gifford wastewater treatment plant.

The new work contemplated by the county will involve installing additional sewer lines throughout the Summerplace area, where most of the houses, built in the 1960s, have outdated septic systems that leach into the Atlantic and the lagoon.

Burke said another reason Summerplace seemed like a good place for the county to begin tackling the septic contamination problem is that the streets are unpaved, making it less costly to dig trenches for sewer mains and repair roadways afterward.

County staff will host an informational workshop for residents and other members of the public at on March 17 at 5:30 p.m. at the Environmental Learning Center, which is located on the lagoon near Summerplace.

“For nearly 50 years, Summerplace has been known as a ‘Bohemian’ enclave,” according to an article on “Short, sandy shell lanes to the sea, lush tropical foliage, oak hammocks and cottage homes have attracted artists, writers, musicians, entrepreneurs and a host of other independent ‘live and let live’ spirits.”

Evidently there is hope that the Summerplace residents so described have a strain of the environmentalism that often goes along with Bohemianism in their DNA and will approve of and participate in the sewer plan to protect the lagoon that is the economic and aesthetic centerpiece of Indian River County.

The county has a similar project in the works on the Sebastian waterfront. An engineering study conducted by Masteller and Moler, Inc. was accepted by the County Commission two weeks ago; it offers four alternatives to get homes east of U.S. 1 and north of Main Street off septic. Projected project costs range from $5 million to $8.6 million, with per-lot costs from approximately $7,000 to $12,000 before grant money is applied.

Results of the study have been presented to the Sebastian City Council and a resident workshop is planned. As with the Summerplace infrastructure, hookup will be voluntary with financing options available to spread connection costs over 5 to 20 years.