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February 6, 2009
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Cape Coral City Council took its first step forward this week toward a plan to bring water lines to properties north of Pine Island Road.

The 4-3 decision, which puts property owners on notice of the city's intent to proceed, did not come easy. Heated debate and pleas from the public extended the discussion for nearly four hours before a scant council majority decided to edge the $198 million project forward, at least to the formal public hearing stage.

Property owners will now have two opportunities to hear the details and, three chances to, hopefully, tell the city whether water lines should be brought into a section of the city that remains largely undeveloped. The estimated cost will be about $6,000 for each of the area's estimated 57,000 building parcels, or two-lot sites.

The meetings are set for 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 19 and Feb. 25 in the Mariner High School auditorium. Council also has set a final public hearing on the proposal for March 9, at which time the board is expected to vote on whether to embark on what would be the Cape's largest single infrastructure improvement project in its history.

We urge all Cape residents to attend these sessions as the decision made March 9 will impact more than those who own property north of Pine Island Road.

For north Cape property owners, the proposal represents a significant deviation from past utility expansion projects. First, council proposes to reverse the city's past position on the installation of what were previously referred to as "spaghetti lines." The vast majority of the Cape's previous utility expansions have brought all three utilities - water, sewer and "dual," or reclaimed, water in at the same time. Although the cost has been high, the city has maintained that this, ultimately, is the cheapest and best way to go.

North Cape property owners are now looking at two utility expansion projects - one for water, to be followed at some point in time by another to bring in sewer services. Additional expenses are assured. What property owners - and council - needs to weigh is whether the extra cost and inconvenience of going through the process twice is outweighed by having water services available sooner.

Two, council is proposing to change the way it charges for the cost of implementation, which essentially includes three types of fees: an assessment to pay for the pipes and other costs of construction; an impact fee, which, charges for needed expansion to the water and/or sewer plant facilities; and connection fees.

To date, every property owner within a utility expansion area has had to pay the assessment for their particular portion of the project. Only the owners of developed properties, though, have had to pay the impact fee as only those property owners have actually "impacted" the system. Lot owners were charged this fee only when a home was built.

For the expansion area dubbed North 1-8, the city proposes to change the name of the impact fee to a capital expansion fee and charge it to every property owner up front. This new "reservation fee" will guarantee property owners in the north Cape capacity in the new water treatment plant now 75 percent completed. It also will more than double the upfront cost to lot owners as $3,341 of the estimated $6,000 per parcel cost will be for impact - or in the case of undeveloped properties - potential impact, on the system.

This is a significant change and one that has the potential to affect rate payers throughout the city, depending on how council decides to proceed.

The advantage of changing how lot owners are charged for the facilities portion of the expansion charges is that existing ratepayers won't have to bear the total burden of building plants to serve future ratepayers, city officials maintain. Instead, the city will be able to pay cash for the plant it undertook to build based on boom-time growth projections that are no longer valid. If council decides to wait on the proposed water-only expansion, or declines to change how lot owners are assessed, the plant construction still will need to be paid for. And the only other source for that money is water rates charged to existing customers.

There's a lot of potential impact here, no matter where you live or own property in Cape Coral. Again, we urge a good turnout at the two public information sessions this month and the public hearing in March.

We also urge the city to provide solid information at these sessions. Convince us, the property owners and ratepayers asked to pay the price, that water-only will benefit the north Cape and that the benefits outweigh the additional costs. Convince us that it makes sense to expand utilities at all in an area that is not only largely undeveloped but is likely to remain that way until the economy turns around. Convince us that a change in cost assessment will benefit those bearing the burden, that they will get a quantifiable return for an expense that, in the case of lot owners, is likely to be more than their property is worth in today's market.

We ask the public to turn out, listen, and be ready to demand answers. North 1-8 is much more than an extension of the current utility expansion project. It's a change in direction that has the potential to impact not only the half of the city poised to pay the direct costs, but the rest of us as well.

- Breeze editorial



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