‘Set in stone’: City Council makes sewer plant removal official policy

Vero Beach Water-Sewer plant

A unanimous Vero Beach City Council made it clear the city’s unsightly wastewater treatment plant will be moved from the Indian River Lagoon as soon as possible, following speculation city staff was looking for ways to renovate the aging facility.

The City Council on Sept. 17 made the longstanding goal official amid conjecture city staff secretly desired to renovate the existing plant on the shore of the Indian River Lagoon at 17th Street, which many see as an eyesore and environmental danger.

The official policy directive from the council put on record the board’s desire to move the plant to a city-owned site near Vero Beach Regional Airport, while also asking staff to open a dialogue with Indian River County to see if that jurisdiction is interested in taking over the city’s wastewater operation at an inland site.

If the county agreed to provide wastewater service, a new plant would not have to be built by the city.

“The goal is to get the plant off the lagoon and make the land more aesthetically pleasing,” Councilman Harry Howle said.

The policy directive comes several weeks after a Vero Utilities Committee meeting in which Utilities Commission member Mark Mucher noted moving the sewer plant off the river has been a long-standing political goal of the city. Utilities Director Rob Bolton cryptically replied, “That’s what this City Council wants, but the next City Council might want something different.”

Now that Bolton has clear direction from the council, he will scrap research related to renovation of the current facility, he said.

“That sets it in stone,” Bolton said of the council’s decision.

It would have cost the city as much as $30 million to revamp the plant in place for another 15 years, according to experts. The price tag to decommission the riverfront plant and construct a new state-of-the-art sewer plant at the airport would be about $50 million.

Bolton estimates a new plant would take more than two years to construct and could be operational by 2024 or 2025. The existing plant, designed to treat 4.5 million gallons per day, was built in 1977 to replace an obsolete 1958 plant that treated 2.2 million gallons a day. Prior to that, a 1920s plant and a World War II-era U.S. Navy wastewater facility dumped treated wastewater into a relief canal.

Both the 1977 and 1958 plants discharged treated wastewater directly into the lagoon, as was the practice until 2010, when the Indian River Lagoon Act prohibited such discharges and Vero invested in a deep-injection well at the airport that deposits both wastewater and brine from water treatment thousands of feet down into the ground.

Bolton told the council he will initiate contact with the county to engage in talks about a possible takeover. For the county’s part, County Administrator Jason Brown said he’s open to a conversation.

“I would have to know more of the details. We haven’t been contacted by the city on that specifically,” Brown said. “We’d have to evaluate what would be asked of us.”

It’s the city’s goal to redevelop the 35-acre riverfront property at 17th Street and Indian River Boulevard known as Centennial Place, which encompasses the sites of the former city electric plant, current wastewater treatment plant and the former postal annex.

At the Sept. 17 meeting, the council approved a contract with Miami-based DPZ CoDesign for consulting services meant to guide redevelopment of the prime piece of waterfront real estate.

The $144,000 contract with the consulting firm includes creation of a website where residents can weigh in on how they’d like the site developed, a social media campaign to engage locals, outreach to young people and a series of public meetings at the Vero Beach Community Center on 14th Avenue to garner input.

The six-month planning process includes time to analyze the site, hold a “kick-off” presentation to the City Council in mid-November, formulate a public survey, hold the public meetings in January and present a final report summarizing the community’s wishes in May, according to city documents.

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