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Study: County able to provide water to Shores

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of February 3, 2022)

The long-awaited results of a study investigating whether it would be possible and sensible for the Town of Indian River Shores to get utility service from Indian River County Utilities has finally arrived and, legal disputes aside, consultants say getting county water-sewer service can be done.

The report arrived last Friday, but Town Attorney Pete Sweeney had to review it for potential redaction of exempt information before releasing it publicly on Monday afternoon.

Town Manager Jim Harpring summed the report up in three points. “Connecting town customers to Indian River County Utilities is certainly feasible. The county has the capacity to serve Indian River Shores, notwithstanding the city’s many public representations to the contrary,” Harpring said.

“While the cost is high, it is as expected and there is a clear and obtainable pathway for funding.”

While the county has the capacity at its plants, the report says the Shores must construct and provide the “conveyance,” i.e. the pipes under the Indian River Lagoon that would bring potable drinking water and reuse irrigation water from the county water and wastewater plants to the barrier island, and wastewater from the island to the county’s treatment plant.

The estimated cost of connecting to the county system, consultants say, would range from $47 million on the low end up to $68 million, and that’s a “conservative estimate” which depends on timing and ever-fluctuating construction and material costs. Funding mechanisms would likely consist of a mix of state and federal grants, state revolving fund loans and revenue bonds, with all these options explained in the report.

The project would require the acquisition of utility easements and right-of way from Vero Beach, Indian River County and the Florida Department of Transportation. Consultants say the design and permitting process would be lengthy, as permits must be obtained from both the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The 42-page study findings, prepared by Tampa-based Arcadis consultants, took nearly 10 months to complete. Arcadis needed help from county staff to compile the research and determine the county’s capacity to serve the town’s approximately 2,000 households now on the Vero water-sewer system.

The county’s cooperation with the study got the county in hot water with Vero, as the city saw the feasibility study as an affront to its utility service territory. Vero asserts that it has a perpetual right and responsibility to serve Indian River Shores according to the terms of a 1989 agreement by which Vero and Indian River County carved the county up into two water-sewer utility territories.

Last week, Vero agreed to provide a set of terms to the county under which Vero would permit the county to serve the Shores after the Shores’ water-sewer utility franchise agreement with Vero expires in October 2027.

City Manager Monte Falls said on Monday that he’ll be meeting with staff to discuss developing the terms, but that he has no timeline for producing them.

Shores Mayor Brian Foley Monday said he’s curious to see what kind of terms Vero will put forth. “I don’t know what the city has to sell to the county. We (the town) own everything of consequence pursuant to the franchise agreement,” Foley said.

In 2012, when Vero and Indian River Shores signed a new franchise agreement, the town insisted on a reverter clause stating that the vast majority of the water-sewer utility infrastructure would revert to the town’s ownership at the termination of the franchise agreement in 2027, or in 2042, if renewed.

The Shores must give Vero notice by October 2023 whether or not the town plans to exit Vero’s system, or renew its franchise until 2042. Vero must know the size of its long-term customer base in order to design and construct a new state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant at the Vero Beach Regional Airport complex. Once that plant is complete, the city can decommission the sewer plant on the river to pave the way for the southern portion of the planned “Three Corners” riverfront development.

In order to pursue water-sewer service from Indian River County Utilities, Indian River Shores has sued Vero Beach in federal court, alleging that the concept of a “permanent” utility service territory, granted via an agreement to which the Town of Indian River Shores was not a party, violates federal antitrust law.

Vero’s attorneys say they’re confident in their strong defense, while the Shores’ lawyers say the 1989 territorial agreement deprives the town of the right to seek competitive rates and service from another provider.

The Shores and Vero declared an impasse in this dispute at mediation last month. Foley said Monday the federal court has been notified that the case should be taken out of abeyance. Foley and Vero Mayor Robbie Brackett have agreed to bring the matter to a conclusion as swiftly as possible.

Indian River Shores has also sued Vero Beach in state court for breach of contract over the rates Vero is charging the Shores for reuse water. That matter is also pending before Circuit Court Judge Janet Croom, as Vero has asked for a summary judgment and the Shores has begun deposing potential witnesses, including Vero Utilities Director Rob Bolton.