| Fort Myers News-Press
An enclave of Cape Coral residents is in a dispute with the city over a reclaimed water line.
At least three residents off Ceitus Parkway in northwest Cape Coral, just west of Burnt Store Road, were fined $250 by the city for using a reclaimed water line installed last year as part of Cape Coral’s utilities extension project.
The city said they were using the line without a permit. The residents said they were told verbally to go ahead and connect. The city had them on record with water permits but not with permits for the reclaimed water hookup.
The residents said they figured the water permit allowed him to tap into the reclaimed water line, too.
Over the past two years, 85 tampering fees have been applied to utility accounts, the city said. There have been 311 irrigation audit work orders issued.
“They tore up the road, 19 different times that they’ve dug it up and covered it up,” said Jon Covington, one of the residents. “When they were actually finished, they put some sod in. They said, ‘You’re going to have to water this.’”
The city told Covington and homeowner Barbara Hoffman to turn off and remove their well irrigation system. This left them with either using the city water to water the grass, which would have bumped up their monthly water bill, or their preferred option of connecting to the new reclaimed water line.
Covington hired a plumber to tap into the reclaimed water line in July.
The installation of irrigation lines and sewer lines in this neighborhood was part of the North 2 utilities extension project, said Maureen Buice, a spokesperson for the city.
“It is the property owner’s responsibility to have the connection completed,” Buice said in an email. “Utilities extension work is completed in the city-owned right-of-way, which does not require the city to perform work on private property.”
The city’s code requires a connection to the water and sewer system, she said, but connecting to the irrigation system is optional.
Covington opted to connect to that system. He did so not realizing he was breaking any kind of code violation, he said.
“Everything was great for about five months,” Covington said. “Until someone started coming around and turning it off.”
The city said it received an anonymous tip in December that households were using the reclaimed water without a permit.
Covington said filing an anonymous tip would be impossible without trespassing on private property, as the reclaimed water hookups, which are below ground, are not in view from the street.
The city said the first tip led to exposing the other two adjacent homes, Buice said.
Covington also said he was told by the city he could hook up to the line, which the city installed and encased inside a purple box on the property.
“I’m still not clear about what we’re supposed to do,” Covington said. “Almost overnight, they put a lock on it. Then they charged us a $250 fine for tampering. No warning. And it wasn’t just me.”
Pat Covington, who lives next door from her brother, Jon, said the same thing happened to her, also in December.
“They cut off my irrigation water,” she said. “My service was connected to my well. The city sent me a $250 bill and didn’t tell me what it was for. I did pay it. They put in the reclaimed water. They fined me $250, and I don’t even know why.”
The city sent a “Notice of Availability” to Hoffman dated July 17. It gave instructions on seeking a permit, stating one was needed.
Connecting to the reclaimed water line is voluntary, but choosing to connect requires a permit, Buice said.
Also, citizens hooking up to the new city sewer lines must pay for that connection on their own. Covington said his connection will cost between $1,500 and $3,500.
The city website suggests quotes between $1,500 and $2,000.
City records show Hoffman’s home to have had a city water permit since 2008. Covington said he assumed having the existing city water permit allowed him to tap into the reclaimed water line installed by the city.
In January, after paying the fine, Covington applied for the sewer and reclaimed irrigation water permit. He did so having spent months trying to navigate the city’s system to the city’s liking.
“We tried to file a permit and spent two hours at city hall waiting,” Covington said in an email. “We were told we could not because we did not have a contractor listed on the application. What were we to do? After two days on the phone, we found that most contractors did not do the work, refused to answer their phones or were six months out. We were told to call back for a bid in four months.
“How do we file a permit without a contractor, and how do we meet the 180-day install requirement when the contractors are six months out?”
Covington said he would like the city to improve its communication with residents.
Between Dec. 14 and Feb. 11, Covington was going back and forth on the phone, trying to reach city employees about these issues before finalizing things by getting the proper permit and hiring Honc to do the installation. Now he has to wait his turn for Honc to do the sewer connection and the reclaimed water connection.
“There is no mechanism to hear complaints about service cut-offs, improper charges, non-existent warnings or explanations of department behavior,” Covington said of the city. “Why is that? What is there to hide? Is it reasonable to expect to wait two hours in line to file a permit? Cape Coral used to be a friendly place with helpful city employees interested in doing what is best for its citizens. I’m sure there are still many, but they are fewer than before. I hope it changes.”
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