What a blast. On Saturday September 16th around 70 Islanders got together for an old-school Island style potluck party. Folks bought T-shirts and raffle tickets for a special Potluck logo tumbler. The Island Art Cart was on display so folks could add their personal artistic touch. Oldtimers and newcomers communed together, and a good time was had by all.
Her first topic was the special place the old Station 10 had in the community. Past uses for all Islanders included:
These uses came to an end after the building was remodeled for paid firefighter coverage approx. 10 years ago.
Next came the question of why PIE was not seeking ownership of the property.
Question: Does the use of the property as a community hub violate any zoning restrictions?
Answer: Linda Cotherman told the group that the County modified zoning regulations in 2014 and established the BBI (bridgeless barrier island) designation for our Islands and Little Gasparilla. There are no special exemptions needed at this time for using the property as proposed for the community.
Comment: An audience member expressed concern that removing the property from the tax rolls might impact other Island owners’ taxes and deprive a future owner of an Island home.
Response: Robin Madden said that the loss of one property will not impact the County as they bring in a large volume of tourism taxes from the Island. Linda Cotherman explained that it will not impact other Island owners since our property taxes are County-wide which will minimize the impact to the tax rolls.
Comment: An audience member pointed out that the last-minute notice by the County was not by deliberate design.
Response: Correct. BICI and PIE were initially told that the sale of the fire house was a low priority, which was true. However, when the estimates for the 2024 Fire & EMS taxes were released Charlotte County got a lot of pushback from property owners. Their response was to try to reduce the $54/year tax increase by selling off the excess fire house properties. That is what speeded things up. In addition, the Fire Advisory Committee is restricted to quarterly meetings which slowed down the process.
Question: What is the Island Fellowship Church’s involvement with the property?
Answer: This was addressed by Pastor Sammie Brooks of the Island Fellowship Church.
the long and costly process to build the new firehouse. He indicated that he had no objection to negotiating with BICI but expressed that he wished to "backfill some of the cost with the sale of the old property". He mentioned that, while the residents paid for a large portion of the new firehouse there was also sales tax money applied to the land purchase and building. The key for the Commissioners is to find the "right number" so that they are not underselling the old Station 10 property. The Conservancy is also looking for the right number so they are not overpaying for the property, so it seems there should be room for negotiation.
Our Island Conservancy, BICI, was in the process of establishing negotiations with Charlotte County over the future disposition of the old firehouse when the property suddenly went out to bid. We urge the Island stakeholders to support BICI in its efforts. The proposal to Charlotte County appears below:
Proposal for the old Station 10 Fire House on Don Pedro Island
We are writing to you today to formally request that you pause the Sale of County-Owned Building - Fire Station #10 (File No 23-627) and open discussions with the Bocilla Islands Conservancy, Inc. [BICI]. A successful negotiation will allow the old firehouse property to continue to serve the Island community.
On May 23, 2023, we provided an initial offer of $19,800 to purchase the property, which constitutes a figure roughly equal to the County’s initial purchase price. In 1989 the property was purchased by Island Residents and sold to the County one year later at cost.
Why putting this property out for bid is premature.
While a quick sale might seem attractive to the County in the short term, this solution does not consider the wider view of what is potentially involved with the sale of this specific property.
We acknowledge that the cash proceeds of a quick sale to a private buyer would on its face be equitable, in that it would return cash dollars to the broader community. However, the ultimate buy-price may not compare to the potential value to be gained by the County by pursuing an offer from the conservancy.
There are several factors that are likely to reduce the bids for this acquisition. For example,
All of the above will serve to reduce the ultimate buy price for the property. What remains of the cash will be further diminished by the complications that will invariably arise related to the sale of this property. One of these is the lack of a guarantee that the new owner will raze the building in a timely manner. Surrounding properties are in jeopardy from large wind-borne debris. And public safety is compromised until this building is gone.
How returning the property to the community benefits the stakeholders.
While the County may consider the sale of the property “fiscally responsible” in that the proceeds will go back to the County, acquisition of the property by a land conservancy is inarguably of public benefit. The Bocilla Islands Conservancy Inc. is a non-profit, tax exempt 501(C)3 public charity whose purpose is consistent with land preservation goals for the bridgeless barrier Islands as outlined in Smart Charlotte 2050.
BICI’s intentions for the old firehouse property dovetails with the Charlotte County Parks and Recreation Master Plan. From 1991 to the present, the old Station 10 has been the Island’s de facto community center, used for meetings, classes, demonstration gardens, memorial gardens, environmental education and more. These are essentially the same uses described in the Parks & Rec. Master Plan under the description of “mini-parks.”
BICI wants to continue the traditional use of the old firehouse property as our community gathering area. If the pilings and slab remain, a covered area could be created that meets the criteria for a mini-park as outlined in the Parks plan. It would be far less costly to work with the existing remains of the old firehouse property than to establish a new mini-park and community area in the future. And one of the primary permitted principal uses in the BBI special zoning district is for “non-profit parks and playgrounds”.
BICI is working in cooperation with the 225-member Palm Island Estates Association, Inc. PIE supports this proposal, as it would provide a conveniently located site for the many Island social and educational gatherings in the community.
How returning the property to the community benefits the public.
This “mini-park” would serve many more people than other comparably sized park in other neighborhoods because both visitors and renters attend these events. Our Islands are home to hundreds of rental units, and in any given season thousands of visitors and residents would potentially use this interactive space.
Instead of placing what will amount to a fraction of a cent in the pocket of each Charlotte County taxpayer, the County has the opportunity to provide great benefit to the ongoing tourist industry on these Barrier Islands. This potentially translates into future bed tax improvement for the County’s taxpayers.
We therefore urge you to stop the bid and open negotiations with BICI to determine the future disposition of this property. We believe that there is a solution that will provide the community with the continued use of the property while providing the County with a fiscally responsible way to provide public benefit.
Friday, Oct. 21st: Local news reported that 6 boats were affected when a fire broke out at the Palm Harbour Marina. The cause stated was sparks generated by sawing on the roof. Video footage was posted on the Don Pedro Island FB page.
On Thursday, September 8th, the 3-member panel of Commissioners at the PSC rendered their final judgment on the application for wastewater certification from Environmental Utilities, LLC.
The first item for discussion was the request to hear oral arguments. Staff member Ryan Sandy reiterated staff's position, that "the pleadings are sufficient on their face to evaluate and decide" the motion. However, the Commissioners opted to allow each party 7 minutes to speak.
Martin Friedman spoke first on behalf of EU. He mentioned 5 central water and wastewater systems on the Island, asking how can wastewater service be prohibited when they already exist there? “Staff didn’t address that” he said. He then waved a map from the Sewer Master Plan, arguing that the Island appears in red, indicating it belonged in the County’s 5-year improvement plan. Finally, he insisted that the County supplied an appointee who testified that the County was 100% in support of the project.
Linda Cotherman rebutted Mr. Friedman’s arguments. First, she pointed out that the only wastewater facilities on the Islands are package plants, quite different from a central sewer system. She then spoke about the inconsistencies in various maps and locations identified in the Sewer Master Plan, and the fact that the Sewer Master Plan is now being updated.
Brad Kelsky spoke representing PIE. He opened by stating that EU was “re-hashing what has already been decided.” He then pointed out that the County had ample time to participate in the process, yet they did not send an authority with any knowledge of the comprehensive plan. PIE did provide an expert witness who testified that the sewer project was inconsistent with the County’s Comp Plan.
When the time came for the ruling, Commissioner LaRosa indicated that his position was aligned with the PSC staff recommendations. Commissioner Passidomo said that the standards for reconsideration “are whether we made a mistake of fact.” She saw nothing in the motion that met those standards.
Commissioner Clark had the last word before the vote. He started by pointing out that "establishment of the need for service is the biggest driving need" for approval of central sewer certification. "If the County wanted, they could stop issuing septic permits. That would establish a need for service real quick."
At 10:41 AM, the PSC Commissioners denied the Motion for Reconsideration.
While the PSC has made their last ruling, EU still has an opportunity to appeal their decision to the First District Court in Tallahassee. According to Ryan Sandy of the PSC, "The appeal period will be spelled out in the "notice of further proceedings" section at the end of the order on reconsideration, once it issues." The order is scheduled to be released on September 28th.
After some delays, on Friday July 8th, the FINAL ORDER Denying Application for an Original Certificate to Provide Wastewater Service in Charlotte County by Environmental Utilities, LLC was posted to the PSC website.
The year-and-a-half plus administrative utility case that began with Environmental Utilities’ application to extend sewer to the Islands concluded with:
"ORDERED that for the reasons set forth herein, we find that it is not in the public interest
to grant Environmental Utilities, LLC's application for a certificate to provide wastewater
service in Charlotte County. The application is therefore denied. It is further ORDERED that this docket shall be closed."
So, is it over? Not quite yet. According to the Final Order, the EU, LLC may request:
It is interesting to note that on Tuesday, June 14th, the Charlotte County Board of County Commissioners opened discussions about the denial of the utility's application. The BOCC agreed to direct staff to write a letter to the PSC supporting the application. Chairman Tiseo indicated that owner Jack Boyer had phoned each of the Commissioners the day before to apprise them of the ruling.
According to the letter, "the County whole-heartedly supports Environmental Utilities' cost-effective proposal for the removal of septic systems and the connection to sewer to treat wastewater on the
barrier islands with the condition that the project's estimated costs must remain substantially consistent with Environmental Utilities' proposal." This letter was approved at the Commission meeting on June 28th and was immediately sent to the PSC.
Two days later, Charles Rehwinkle from the Office of Public Counsel wrote a letter to the Deputy Attorney at the PSC with concerns about the BOCC letter. He requested the Commission take steps to ensure that prohibited communications are not allowed to taint the case in the issuance of the Final Order. He also wrote "Likewise, I request that you take all steps necessary to ensure that the letter is in no way considered in any post hearing matters such as reconsideration, if such is sought, or inclusion in the record of the case on appeal, if one is taken."
Knight Island Utilities, Inc. also provided a support letter after the fact. PIE's counsel, Brad Kelsky, indicated that any communications received by the PSC after the record was closed on February 8th could not be introduced as evidence in the Administrative Hearing.
So, what is the upshot of all of this activity? We should know by no later than Monday July 25th if EU has filed a motion for reconsideration and by Monday August 8th if they are filing an appeal. PIE will continue to monitor this case closely, and keep you informed of any new developments.
After a year and a half of legal wrangling, the Public Service Commission delivered the ruling that Island stakeholders have been hoping for: the Commissioners denied EU’s application to provide wastewater service to the Islands.
At a very brief Commission Conference the morning of June 7th, the 3-Commissioner panel had an opportunity to open discussion and ask questions about the wastewater docket.
Commissioner LaRosa offered a synthesis of the arguments to deny the application. He opened his comments with a tribute to the uniqueness of our bridgeless barrier islands, and how it was a reminder that cases need to be assessed on an individual basis. He spoke about the lack of need for service, mentioning the absence of any requests for sewer service from individuals or from a developer as well as the overwhelming opposition to the proposal. He also said that in his experience, if a County supports a proposal they are usually well represented in the case before the PSC. He found the absence of strong participation on behalf of Charlotte County noteworthy.
Commissioner Passidomo had a question regarding Charlotte County’s mandatory connection ordinance and whether it could be construed as an argument supporting the need for service. Ryan Sandy [senior attorney] addressed this by explaining that hookup becomes a requirement where sewer is available, which would be after the utility had certification from the PSC. In addition, the preponderance of the “need for service” arguments weighed in favor of denying the application. He also mentioned the conflict with the County’s Comprehensive Plan. Commissioner Passidomo seemed satisfied and requested that this be included in the docket’s Final Order.
Staff suggested that the Commissioners vote on issues #A, 1-9 and 14 first, since following the recommendations provided on these issues would make the remaining issues moot. The Commissioners then voted to accept the staff recommendations including denying the application and closing the docket.
Please remember that a final victory lap is premature. EU has 30 days from the posting of the Final Order (due late June) to file an appeal of this decision. According to our attorney, no new evidence is permitted in an appeal. The appeal would be solely based on legal arguments as to whether the PSC decision remained within the guidelines of what is permitted by law.
The video of the entire Commission Conference can be viewed HERE. You can forward through the agenda items preceding the EU docket (we are last, item #11), but the whole meeting was very brief.
Today (05.25.22) PIE received an email from our attorney Brad Kelsky with the subject line “Staff is recommending denial.” Attached was the comprehensive, 54-page Memorandum from the PSC staff to the Commissioners outlining each of the 14 issues associated with the wastewater application.
Under Issue 2 “Need for Service”, the staff examined the arguments and determined that EU has not established a need for central sewer service here. In Item 9 “Public Interest” the PSC staff states as follows:
“As discussed in Issue 2 [ed. note. Need for Service], staff recommends that the Utility has not demonstrated a need for service in the proposed service territory. Staff believes that this is of significant concern. The Utility has not provided any request for service from existing residents of the proposed service territory, and written correspondence has indicated that the existing residence are largely opposed to EU’s application. EU has not provided evidence that any environmental regulator mandated the conversion of septic systems to central sewer, and no evidence has been provided substantiating EU’s claim of an environmental or health related need. Nor were any County leaders present during the hearing to clarify the needs of the County. Finally, although customer preference is not an appropriate basis for granting or denying a certificate application, in terms of demonstrating a need for the service, the overwhelming majority of prospective customers who testified before the Commission stated they were in opposition to the application.
Since EU has not demonstrated a need for service, staff believes that EU’s financial and technical capability is irrelevant. Since no need for service exists, and the existing residents are largely opposed to EU’s application, staff believes the Utility’s application is not in the public interest. Therefore, staff recommends that EU’s application for a wastewater certificate should be denied.”
Note the references to the substantial opposition to EU’s proposal. In the case background, staff wrote: “A total of 53 customers spoke at the service hearings and over 1,000 written customer comments were received.” It was clear that the participation of an engaged community was influential in the recommendations.
Our Island communities should be very proud of the impact we have had in these proceedings. Every action– writing emails, watching and speaking at the hearings and donating to the legal Action Fund – made a huge difference.
A summary of the staff recommendations appears on the Commission Conference Agenda for June 7th (CLICK HERE to view). This is where the Commissioners will make their final ruling on the sewer docket by approving or discarding the staff recommendations.
CLICK HERE to view the detailed Memorandum from the PSC staff.
After a few cancelled dates, the new fire house ribbon-cutting was under way. The weather was letter-perfect, the turn-out was good and the new building was most impressive!