Residents and businesses in the county’s oldest waterfront neighborhoods will see machinery soon in their front yards digging up the earth for new water pipes.
Dozens of dignitaries including U.S. Rep. Greg Steube gathered Thursday to celebrate Charlotte Harbor Water Association signing a construction contract that took three years and a personnel overhaul to accomplish.
The first thing going into the ground will be about 17 miles of new water pipes stretching from the old Harbour Heights neighborhood to the unfinished Sunseeker resort up U.S. 41 to ABC Fine Wine and Spirits. To be replaced is iron piping from the 1960s.
The 58-year-old association took over from the Mackle brothers developers in the 1960s. It evolved separately from the public regional water authority, which draws from the Peace River. While located on the Peace River, the private association draws from an underground aquifer.
The system currently serves a population of about 10,000 people, Sunseeker notwithstanding. About 3.5 years ago, it was falling apart, association board member Steve Vieira said, with failing pipes, water pressure too low for houses and firefighting and meters that did not register how much water was used.
Out went a previous board of directors and a superintendent who had been on the job decades. A new volunteer board began interviewing candidates for a new superintendent. Only one candidate had a plan to overhaul the system, Vieira said. That was Scott Baker, working then in Fort Myers.
Baker told the new board members that they needed to rebuild their system and they should apply to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for grants and loans. He said they would qualify as a rural community. But the U.S.D.A. has a lot of complex requirements for its millions of dollars. Federal specialists saw the water association’s rates were too low to sustain itself, and the association did not know how much it should charge. The last rate increase had been about a nickel.
Since the first rate study less than three years ago, rates have gone up about 24%. Customers welcomed the increase and asked for more. That was a first for Baker.
“In 30 years of doing this, I’ve never had people say, ‘Raise the rates higher,’” he said.
After years of studies, negotiations and professional upgrades, the association was approved in 2019 for $4.5 million in grants and $6.1 million in long-term, low-interest loans, which it will pay for with its new higher rates. Construction is expected to start in December, Baker said.
This is the largest rural water project by a nonprofit in the country, said London Rotunda, regional director for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
“This is a massive achievement for our state,” Steube said.
State Rep. Michael Grant said he expects property values to increase in the area and insurance rates to drop due to better fire protection. Grant also said he hopes to see more affordable housing go up in the region once it has better infrastructure.
“It seems to me this is a win not only for Harbour Heights but for Charlotte County,” he said.
While it is laying down the new pipes, the association will be preparing to also overhaul its water treatment system to meet federal requirements. It will also be replacing most of the water meters.
One other big project remains to confront — sewage treatment. Most of the area has none, Baker said, so they are applying for another U.S.D.A. grant to study the feasibility of building a sewer system. This similar project in other neighborhoods in Charlotte County has generated huge backlash with residents deeply resentful of paying to hook into a sewer system. So far, however, Baker said, he only hears from people begging for sewers, he said. But that is many years off, at this point.