More than 800 property owners will have a year after construction to connect to the county’s sanitary sewer services

STUART – The Martin County Commission gave the green light to a significant septic-to-sewer conversion project Sept. 15 when its members voted unanimously to create the Golden Gate Wastewater Municipal Service Benefit Unit for the area along Southeast Dixie Highway between Stuart and Port Salerno.

As part of the same motion, the Board awarded a $13 million contract to Centerline Utilities, Inc. of Palm City for the construction of a vacuum sewage collection system and related structures for the Golden Gate community and approved the drafting of a $14.4-million Florida State Revolving Fund Loan Agreement.

Utilities Chief Project Manager Phil Keathley told commissioners the $12.9-million project would eventually provide sanitary sewer services to 766 properties currently relying on septic systems. Since duplexes and triplexes are scattered throughout the Golden gate community, more than 830 households will ultimately have to pay the nearly $12,000 sewer connection fee, in addition to the cost of decommissioning their old septic systems.

“The proposed assessment includes 766 properties [with] 834.5 equivalent resident connections,” he said. “The total project cost is $12, 947,498.20. There is a reduction of $2 million from a legislative-appropriations grant and a state revenue sharing contribution of $1.3 million, reducing the amount of assessible costs to $9,647,498. Therefore, that sum is divided by 834.5 ERCs for an estimated prepayment amount of $11,561 per connection [or] an annual payment of $633.48 per unit amortized over a 20-year period at 0 percent interest rate plus standard fees.”

The Golden Gates septic-to-sewer program is the result of a 2015 study conducted by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute on the effects of septic tanks on the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon. In response to that report, Martin officials created the county’s septic-to-sewer conversion plan in order to eliminate some 10,000 septic tanks over the next 10 years.

“The file report suggests significant contributions of nitrogen and phosphorus to the St. Lucie Estuary Watershed, primarily from septic tanks,” Mr. Keathley explained. “Groundwater nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations were significantly higher in residential communities.”

Prior to the vote, Commissioner Doug Smith wanted to know if bringing sanitary sewer services to Golden Gate would then make it easier for the nearby Stuart Yacht & Country Club to also come online sooner. Mr. Keathley, however, emphasized higher priority communities on the list.

“The next major project on the list is Old Palm City,” the latter said. “From there, we would move to construction [in concert] with the CRA because they’re beginning to construct water mains in the Port Salerno/New Monrovia area. We will move in behind that and construct a very large, vacuum sewer system. Beyond that, Stuart Yacht & Country Club is probably six to seven years out, so it’s just outside of our five-year planning horizon.”

Commissioner Smith, however, insisted the neighborhood in question has begged to get off septic tanks for years.

“I’m only pushing the discussion of how we are doing the 10,000 in 10 years,” he continued. “I met with Yacht & Country Club – they were ready to go five years ago. My question is, if Yacht & Country Club were to come to us tomorrow and say can we get on the list sooner, what stands in the way of us doing that?”

Utilities & Solid Waste Department Director Sam Amerson then addressed his question.

“If any of these communities want to move up on the list, they [must] petition the Utilities Department,” he said. “We will provide them ballots as we do for the water assessments. When they have a majority of property owners who want a collection system and want to be assessed, then we’d move them up on the list.”

Even so, Mr. Amerson emphasized that the Yacht & Country Club would require its own infrastructure prior to connecting to the county’s wastewater services.

“We looked at extending the Golden Gate vacuum system to attempt to serve the Yacht & Country Club but the distance was too great,” he said. “We’re trying to acquire some property… so we would be able to install one pumping station instead of two to serve both the east and west portions of the Yacht & Country Club, just as we have here for Golden Gate.”

No members of the public spoke during the meeting, but county staff did send out invitations for all the affected households to attend a townhall meeting on the topic held at New Hope Church Sept. 3 in Palm City. Some 30 property owners attended, some with serious questions for Mr. Keathley, who moderated the event. Southwest Busch Street homeowner Jan Dalcorso posed a question that reflected the complicated financial implications for some residents.

“I have a fairly new septic system,” she said during that meeting. “Do I have to hook up to this new one when it’s in place?”

“Yes ma’am,” Mr. Keathley replied. “As established by the Board of County Commissioners, this is a mandatory connection. After construction is completed, we will send out a letter notifying every property owner that the system is now available for connection. By Florida statute, you’ll be allowed an additional 365 days to make that physical connection.”

Southeast Amherst homeowner Bob Rice then asked another critical question.

“Who’s going to disconnect the septic tank, and who’s going to connect the new sewer system?” he asked.

The chief project manager told him homeowners could choose to hire their own plumber or go with a package similar to one now being utilized in North River Shores.

“Martin County Utilities presently has a program in place where you can sign some documents to allow us to work on your property,” he answered. “We have gone out to bid with local plumbing agencies and taken our low-bidders. You can pay the fees directly to us based upon the estimate for your property, and we will oversee and manage the actual construction on your site.”

When Ellendale Street resident Christine Bell wanted to know the cost, Utilities Project Manager David Duncan – who’s been overseeing the North River Shores project – came to the podium with a tentative answer while acknowledging a necessary rebidding in the future.

“The base connection charge based on a septic [tank] in the front or the side of the house is $2,177,” he explained. “Now, there’s an additional charge if it’s to the rear. The $2,177 includes all the site restoration, all the permitting – which is done internally – the abandonment of the septic tank… and complete the connection from the house to the road including a clean-out.”

Southeast Jefferson Street homeowner Bruce Farrow wondered about properties with more than one tank or one in the backyard, and Mr. Duncan described the cost differential.

“If you have a rear septic, there’s a $177 upcharge just because it is some extra footage,” he explained. “if you’ve got a dosing tank or multiple septic tanks, it’s $477, and that includes the abandonment because the Health Department does want that second tank to be accounted for.”

In response to further questioning by Ms. Dalcorso on how Martin County might aid low-income homeowners in Golden Gate, Mr. Keathley emphasized that he’d already applied to the Indian River Lagoon Council for an available grant.

“We’re asking for approximately $2 million to assist with those physical connections onsite from a residence or a duplex up to the roadway,” he said.

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