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Utility issues a reoccurring challenge for city

By TOM HAYDEN - | Jan 7, 2021

As Cape Coral continues its Utility Extension Project to remove septic systems and wells in favor of city water and sewer systems, there was a time over 50 years ago when permitting septic systems faced enormous controversy and subsequent bans.

On Aug. 26, 1970, only eight days after residents voted for incorporation, the Lee County Health Department ordered all septic tank permits stopped after Gulf American Corporation officials — the city developers — said future sewer projects would be controlled by “economic feasibility.”

That event started a roller coaster of activities as the ban was lifted three weeks later when GAC officials agreed to certain stipulations that were part of a timetable of sewer provisions put in place in 1969. The ban returned on Nov. 16 and was lifted a day later after a plea from Lee County District 1 Commissioner Bruce Scott to Dr. Joseph Lawrence, director of the health department.

“Dr. Lawrence had assured me several weeks ago that we would be given an additional week to work this thing out with developers and the health department,” Scott told the Cape Coral Breeze at the time.

There was only limited city water and sewer through GAC Utilities at the time so septic systems were the only ways to discard sewage. By what was true then is true now — septic systems have an adverse impact on the environment, especially for a city with 409 miles of salt and freshwater canals.

That 1969 agreement was crucial to future city utility projects planned for the city. The agreement stipulated that all people who had purchased property since Nov. 1 of that year be informed of the availability of public water and sewer because of a density agreement. In other words, the more people who moved into certain areas of the city would be guaranteed public utilities to eliminate adverse environmental intrusion because of septic systems.

The health department stood firm on its ban the third crackdown on septic systems since 1967. “The Lee County Health Department would like to make it quite clear that we will not compromise with the environmental health of the people of Cape Coral.”

But on Nov. 19, GAC and the health department agreed to continue with septic systems on the conditions homeowners were notified of the availability of city water and sewer coming to their areas. Cape Coral officials were following a rule when a certain area reached 25 percent density, city water would be installed. When the area reached 50 percent, sewer would be added.

“One of the main reasons for the establishment of any central water and sewer facility is to ensure the environmental health of the area,” R.H. Finkernagel, a GAC properties official and a central figure in the agreement, said at the time.

That agreement started a robust plan to implement city water and sewer that continues today. At the time a schedule was in place through 1974 for certain areas of the city to receive central water and sewer. Over those four years, the city population would grow from 11,470 to about 19,000.

The Utilities Extension Project, which started in the 1990s, is critical to the city’s environmental and economic health but has generated controversy over the years. Residents showed up in large numbers at various town halls and City Council meetings to complain about the high prices of the utilities that during one period exceeded $23,000. The project continues today with in the Northeast 1 and 2 areas of the city. Currently, 81.5 percent of properties have city water and about 70 percent city sewer and irrigation.

Controversy over prices is nothing new for the city. There was citywide objection when GAC Utilities announced and implemented property tax increases from $800 to $1,200 for water and sewer construction in 1971. That was $1,040 more than Fort Myers customers were paying and $1,025 more than county residents were charged.

Tom Hayden is a Cape Coral Museum of History board member and City Council member for District 3.