Friday morning, Flagler County Circuit Judge Dennis Craig will be introduced to Flagler’s famous water wars, Bunnell style. A hearing is scheduled in Craig’s courtroom pitting Bunnell against 10 percent of its residents.
Palm Terrace is one of the larger mobile home communities in the county. You see its dual palm-flanked signs off the north side of State Road 100, near the Bunnell water tower. There are some 120 homes in there, and about 250 residents. Bunnell’s population, as of 2010, was 2,676. Bunnell annexed the subdivision in 1984.
For the last quarter century residents of Palm Terrace have been paying their water bill directly to the city. Each home has its own water meter. That’s not unusual. Bunnell’s Pine Forest mobile home community of some 100 lots (but fewer actual homes) is billed the same way. So is Surfside Estates on the beachside, and Plantation Oaks, a larger community on Old Kings Road that’s in Flagler Beach but gets its water, and its water bills, from Volusia County.
Bunnell also services Palm Terrace’s lift station, or sewer pump.
Exactly two years ago, Bunnell sent letters to Palm Terrace residents informing them that it would no longer service the pump. That responsibility would be that of the Palm Terrace owner’s, “although the city of Bunnell in prior years had been providing services as a courtesy, it is not legally required to do so,” Bill Green, the city’s utilities director, wrote the residents. “Please direct all future complaints concerning your sewer system to the Palm Terrace Mobile Home Park management.”
Speaking about the case earlier this week, Sid Nowell, Bunnell’s attorney, said: “Unfortunately the city did maintain the lift station on this property, but mistakenly so.” When reviewing the city’s finances, the discrepancy was noted. “Why should the public bear the cost of maintaining a private lift station?”
In addition, residents were told, and to comply with unspecified regulations “placed on the city of Bunnell by the Department of Environmental Protection,” the whole park would have a single, master water meter. The individual homes’ water meters would no longer be read. The park would receive a single bill. The park’s management would be responsible for paying it in full. And the management would be responsible for billing its residents and collecting the money. The way the city sees it, the park could take the one bill, divide it by its number of residents and bill residents accordingly.
That direct billing would start in early spring.
“That would be blatantly unfair,” says Palm terrace owner George Lorbeck, “in that residents who might be very frugal might be paying for somebody else who is very wasteful, and that type of thing would encourage waste rather than conservation.” Lorbeck has another concern: If there is a resident who doesn’t pay water bill, the city can shut them off. I don’t think have that right without going to court first which would be burdensome and costly.” Lorbeck has owned Palm Terrace since 2003.
City Manager Armando Martinez told Lorbeck that cost-cutting is compelling the city to do things differently.
It may not be that simple. When the city annexed Palm Terrace, it did so with conditions. An August 31, 1984 letter from the attorney of previous owner of the subdivision to the city lays out the terms of the annexation agreement and explicitly states: “The city will take over, operate and maintain the lift station.” An expansion was planned at the time, but 96 units would be grandfathered in with all the benefits they enjoyed at the time. The city was expecting to profit from an annual windfall through added tax revenue from Palm Terrace. “The city would stand to gain a net profit of about $28,000 or more per year, each year,” read an annexation feasibility report from 1984. ($28,000 in 1984 is the equivalent of $60,000 in inflation-adjusted current dollars.) The feasibility study restates the provision that the mobile home park would turn over the lift station to the city.
There was another advantage, as the city saw it, to the annexation: “This annexation will extend our ‘reach,’” the feasibility study concluded, “so that in the future, if you wanted to annex more, you could.” The annexation was approved unanimously by the city commission.
Based on that past, Palm Terrace is suing Bunnell to prevent the new system from kicking in.
But the lawsuit doesn’t have clear-cut documentation on which to base its claims. The documents it does cite are not official city policies. They’re correspondence and reports in advance to the annexation agreement. There is no annexation agreement with explicit definitions of the city’s responsibilities as opposed to the mobile home park’s. “Some of the provisions of that agreement may have been verbal,” the lawsuit states.
Friday morning, the two sides are appearing before Judge Craig as Lorbeck attempts to get a stay on the new billing procedure, pending the outcome of the lawsuit.