Kelli Levy with Pinellas County’s Department of Infrastructure and Environment, talks about staffs past involvement with Lake Sylvia.
CLEARWATER – Homeowners who pay to maintain Lake Sylvia support Pinellas County’s notion of a stormwater tax for unincorporated residents.
“A stormwater tax recognizes the scope of the challenge of providing a core service to protect the county and the environment,” said John Reyner, a resident of unincorporated Seminole, who is one of 37 homeowners responsible for maintenance of the privately owned lake.
Speaking before the commission March 15, Reyner advocated including Lake Sylvia in the county’s stormwater master plan because of the benefits the lake provides to the public.
Lake Sylvia, once a cattle pond, was expanded and made into a retention area for Ridgewood Grove Estates back in the 1960s. It was designed to take care of stormwater needs of the 37 homes built along its banks. In the 1980s, Pinellas County expanded the drainage system, adding 86 drains all flowing into Lake Sylvia. The homeowners say that’s when the problems began.
Reyner appealed to the commission for help on May 22, 2012, saying the additional flow of draining into Lake Sylvia was causing algae growth and fish kills. He asked the county to pay the cost of removing the muck on the bottom of the lake, which had drastically lowered the level of water.
However, the county has a policy against paying for improvements on private property.
Reyner argues that the county is violating the property owner’s rights by using the lake as part of the stormwater system without an agreement with the property owners.
“Lake Sylvia was not intended to become used for the public good without due compensation,” Reyner said.
Commissioner John Morroni thanked Reyner for coming to the meeting and said that the problem with Lake Sylvia was occurring with other lakes and ponds throughout the county.
“This is really an important issue,” Morroni said. “This is the reason why we need you to be involved. We’re going to need your help and support on this. It’s really a big deal.”
Commission Chair Ken Welch agreed, saying, “It is an important conversation in the fiscal sense.”
He said the county was looking for a way to pay for stormwater needs.
“We need a funding source,” he said.
Kelli Levy, with the Department of Environment and Infrastructure, said the problems with Lake Sylvia were ongoing and that in the past the homeowners were very involved in the county’s Adopt-a-Pond program, which was axed in 2007 due to a budget shortfall.
She said because the lake is privately owned, it is not likely to become part of the watershed plan.
“It’s separate issue,” she said.
“It’s a whole issue for another day,” agreed Commissioner Janet Long.
Long said it was only commonsense to realize without all the private lakes and ponds, the county would not be able to keep up with its stormwater needs.
“These ponds are valuable to the public’s qualify of life,” she said. “We have to take some of these things into consideration due to the public policy component.”
Commissioner Karen Seel has been working on the problem for at least the past two years.
“There are hundreds if not thousands of these lakes,” she said. “There needs to be a distinction between public use and private use lakes.”
Commissioner Charlie Justice said the county needed to “get a handle” on costs of maintenance and the fiscal impact of dealing with private lakes and ponds to be able to “do the right thing.”
Assistant County Administrator Mark Woodard said it is a “complex issue,” especially when considering new water quality standards.
Commissioner Susan Latvala asked Levy if Lake Sylvia had fewer problems when it was part of the Adopt-a-Pond program. Levy said residents had called county staff due to algae problems and a fish kill. Unfortunately, the community was in disagreement about using plants to help control the algae.
Reyner said some residents believe that plants aren’t natural for lakes. He said plants would be recommended for use in a stormwater pond.
David Scott, DEI director, said a draft watershed plan would be released in May that would give commissioners more information for discussion.
Reyner then expressed concern about his support for a stormwater tax or fee.
“Don’t tax us and then provide no service,” he said.