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Florida RV Park Sewer Dispute Up to the Judge

December 9, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Resolution in the sewer-fees case between the city of Marathon, Fla., and the Keys RV mobile home park will likely come from a judge, not a settlement between the two parties.

That’s according to Marathon City Council members who say the city’s explored several settlement options with the park’s residents. The residents sued in October 2008 alleging discrimination by the city in assessing them nearly $1 million combined to connect to Marathon’s under-construction sewer system, according to keysnet.com.

That’s $4,700 for each of the 200 owners and is what the owners of single-family homes pay to connect to the system.

“The council has sat in previous executive sessions and we have gone over all kinds of options. Concessions were offered the council felt were fair for Keys RV and the overall community,” Councilman Dick Ramsay said. “I think at this stage of the game, everyone is open to discussion, but unless Keys RV would come back considering some items they’ve already been offered, it’s going to have to continue in the courts.”

Ramsay declined to elaborate on those concessions.

On Dec. 1, acting Circuit Court Judge Ruth Becker delayed ruling on a city motion to have the case dismissed, saying she’d been unable to review a recently filed motion by Keys RV attorney David Paul Horan. Becker may call for more oral arguments, or rule based on the most recent motions.

The case boils down to Keys RV’s contention that assessing each of its owners the same as any other equivalent dwelling unit in the city is based solely on form of ownership.

The 200 property owners purchased the park in 2004, but doing so required them to form a condominium association to obtain bank loans.

That set Keys RV owners up to be charged individual EDUs, like many other condominium associations in Marathon. But Keys RV maintains it should be assessed based on historical water flow, like other mobile home and RV parks. That’s determined by averaging a property’s highest average three-month usage over a three-year period.

“We did the assessment across the board as fairly as we could. The council made the decision and we’ve been assured the way we did it was legal. We can’t change it without changing it for everyone. We have to just wait and see what the judge decides,” Vice Mayor Mike Cinque said.

Cinque pointed out, as did city attorneys in front of Becker, that future development was considered when figuring sewer assessments. As individual property owners, Keys RV property owners hold rights not available to other mobile home park owners — including the right to sell, lease or bequeath the property.

“We had to build that system to capacity,” Cinque said.

Councilman Pete Worthington agreed, saying the city even assesses vacant lots one EDU. The only criterion is a property hold an individual real estate number.

“Our methodology says we assess every [real estate] number that has the potential of generating sewage in the future. I think we’ll just have to see how it goes with Judge Becker and her decision,” he said.

Another one of Horan’s main arguments Dec. 1 was that it will cost Keys RV owners roughly $600,000 to install sewer pipes on the property. He said that’s unfair when the city has installed sewer pipes — free of charge less EDU charges to homeowners — on Stirrup Key and other private roads.

According to Ramsay, the city spent $1.6 million installing sewer lines on Stirrup Key, an affluent neighborhood of 43 homes behind Florida Keys Marathon Airport. But with just 43 homes, it generated roughly $250,000 in sewer assessments.

City Attorney John Herin says that decision is based on a January 2008 council vote “to go ahead and place infrastructure on platted roads, roads of records.”

Cinque said that’s why park owners — pending Becker’s ruling — must pay to install pipes on top of assessments.

“The council didn’t choose to look at the possibility of going into mobile homes. Keys RV is not a legally platted subdivision. There’s several parks like that,” he said. “That’s the reason they’re a condo, because they couldn’t subdivide. You can’t legally plat in there; they don’t have the acreage.”

If Becker rules in favor of Keys RV, Ramsay said the city will likely appeal.

Keys RV Park Awaits Judge’s Ruling on Sewer Case

December 3, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Condo associations up and down the Florida Keys are likely anxiously awaiting Acting Circuit Court Judge Ruth Becker’s decision in a sewer-fees case pitting the city of Marathon against Keys RV.

Becker was expected to rule Tuesday (Dec. 1) on whether the charges are imposed fairly. But she delayed making a decision because she’s been unable to review a recently filed motion for summary judgment against the city filed by Keys RV attorney David Paul Horan. The city has also filed a motion for summary judgment to get the case tossed, according to keysnet.com, Marathon, Fla.

Horan said that “after all this time, the court has to make a decision” on Keys RV’s lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 21, 2008.

In the midst of constructing an $86 million sewer system, the city has assessed each of Keys RV’s 200 property owners for one equivalent dwelling unit — totaling roughly $1 million.

Generally thought of as a low- or moderate-income RV park, owners sued the city, claiming they are being discriminated against based solely on form of ownership. The 200 property owners purchased the park in 2004, but doing so required them to form a condominium association to obtain bank loans.

Keys RV owners maintain that if they hadn’t purchased the park, they’d be assessed on “historical [water] flow” like other mobile home and RV parks. That’s determined by averaging a property’s highest average three-month usage over a three-year period.

The city says the park’s form of ownership has no bearing on the assessment and that residents are being charged what any individually owned property in Marathon is.

The difference is whether the park owners would pay for 74 equivalent units, or 200, which is what the city maintains is due.

Mark Solov, an attorney with Marathon’s contracted legal department of Stearns Weaver in Miami, represented the city Tuesday. He argued an assessment method pleasing all residents is unlikely and that Keys RV owners have property rights other trailer park owners aren’t afforded.

“Forty-nine of these lots … they are being declared as homesteaded properties. Each of the 200 parcels is owned, each has a bundle of rights all property owners have,” he said. Those include the ability to lease, sell, mortgage or bequeath the property.

Solov also argued that municipalities must account for future redevelopment when figuring sewer assessments.

“Every property that is taxed is assessed in order to contribute to the whole. If the rule of law [was] you could only assess on what’s there today, no local government would be able to plan a capital improvement,” he said.

Finally, Solov stressed that city infrastructure funds and state and federal grant funding are footing approximately one-third of the entire $86 million sewer bill.

“The bottom line is there is no free lunch; this is a major capital improvement. It is providing a service and is based on a percentage of the cost, not the total cost,” he said.

Horan’s argument centered on one day, Sept. 7, 2004 — at 8:39 a.m. specifically. That’s when Keys RV declared itself a condominium and set itself up for “arbitrary and capricious” sewer assessments, he said.

“What happened [that day]? Most important is what didn’t happen. Ownership of the property did not change; the assessed value of the park did not change; there was no change in use and still has not been; the same people were in the same spaces before and after Sept. 7, 2004, at 8:39 a.m.”

Horan also argued that determining Keys RV’s rightful EDU count is simple, as the park has a single water meter. He said based on flow, the park’s EDU count should be 74, not 200.

“That’s how it’s figured at all the other RV parks and trailer parks, but not us,” he said.

Becker made no decision Tuesday, but did appear to question the city’s take on the issue.

“I’m not understanding how there has been a use or impact change based on allowing these folks to be owners. Right now, there is no change in the outflow,” she said.

Becker told attorneys she will review both motions for summary judgment and that more oral arguments are possible. She may render a decision based on the motions, as well.

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