St. Johns Water Improvement District in Indian River County charge some of highest irrigation fees
TCPalm – June 17, 2012
INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — People who own land near commercial citrus groves west of Interstate 95 have discovered a downside to this bucolic setting: paying a hefty price for irrigation they don’t need.
Most landowners in Florida pay for water they use. However, a records search of some rural landowners in western Indian River County show they pay among the highest fees in the state to the St. Johns Water Improvement District, even if they use relatively little water, because of a specialized irrigation system constructed decades ago.
The district handles drainage and irrigation for a 29,000-acre area and is separate from the similarly named St. Johns River Water Management District.
An agricultural land investor and the owner of Teen Challenge youth camp both complained about shelling out an average of $95 an acre yearly to this district.
They’re being charged the same rate as a half a dozen large citrus growers in this district, even though they consume a fraction of the water, said Steven Brown, a Miami-based land investor who pays the district $62,000 a year for 673 acres — about four times more than his property taxes.
The fees dwarf what other water districts in the region charge for irrigation, Brown said, arguing he’s unable to sell his land because no one wants the steep fees attached.
“It’s absolutely killing me,” said Brown, who leases his land to a cattle rancher.
The fees are part of his property tax bill, Brown said, and if he doesn’t pay them, he could lose his property. He bought the land in 2005 to cultivate citrus crops and halted production three years ago because of greening and fruit cankers.
A Press Journal investigation found St Johns’ irrigation fees are the highest on the Treasure Coast. Some districts charge $10 to $19 an acre, and others issue permits based on water use rather than imposing a uniform fee on all users.
In St. Johns, a three-member board made up of landowners determines fees, said Bob Ulevich, the district’s administrator, who called it a fair process.
“The fee assessed is very tight, and it’s a budget we live within,” Ulevich said.
WHO SETS FEES?
But Brown contends citrus growers sit on the board and impose the same fees on everyone, regardless of differing water consumption.
“I take exception to that,” Brown said, calling the fees a subsidy for growers. “Those guys are definitely taking advantage of the situation. Whoever is using the water should be paying for the water.”
Citrus companies within the district include Premier Citrus, IMG Citrus, REB Groves, Estes Citrus, Graves Brothers and The Packers of Indian River.
The companies’ representatives couldn’t be reached for comment.
Doug Bournique, the Indian River Citrus League’s executive vice president, said landowners are paying to be in “one of the best drainage districts in the state.”
For those who don’t irrigate, the situation is similar to people paying fees to a homeowners association for services they don’t use, said Bournique, arguing it’s a fact of life. “I live in a gated community and I dislike the fees.”
Disgruntled landowners should speak to Ulevich or air their grievances at the district’s meetings, Bournique said.
Ulevich said the district’s fees have been in this range for a long time and, in fact, were actually higher years ago when the irrigation system was under construction.In the Sebastian River Water Control District, which he also oversees, landowners pay $14 an acre because the system there simply drains water and doesn’t recirculate it for irrigation, Ulevich said.
“There’s no question about where the money goes,” he said of St. Johns’ fees. “It’s a very effective system.”
Cami Kanner, a land broker who represents Brown, said no one disputes how the district uses its money.
The question is why landowners like Brown pay exorbitant fees for an irrigation system that benefits a relative few, she said.
The growers are “definitely the who’s who of the citrus industry,” said Kanner, who owns The Land Corp. of Florida. “They can afford to pay their own bills.”
She decided to publicize Brown’s grievance after getting no satisfactory answers from Ulevich about why the district charges non-growers so much money, she said. Brown said when he bought the land he mistakenly figured he would pay irrigation fees in line with the lower fees he is charged for properties in other parts of Florida, then learned of the substantially higher fees when he received his first tax bill a year later.
The St. Johns fees were tolerable when he ran citrus groves but became unreasonable when he scrapped the operation and drastically reduced his water use, he said.
The founder of Teen Challenge also complained he pays steep fees for water he doesn’t use.
“We think it’s very unjust,” said Maynard Sweigard, who oversees the Christian-based youth camp. “We don’t have a grove, we don’t irrigate. Every dollar we have to spend on this, that’s a dollar we don’t have to spend on the kids.”
Teen Challenge houses almost 40 at-risk teenage boys. Sweigard recently applied for a permit to build a $315,000 house for him, his wife and visiting staffers. He doesn’t expect the new quarters to increase water use significantly.
Teen Challenge pays the district almost $3,000 yearly for 30 acres, according to county tax records.
The district should use a sliding scale to charge landowners based on the water they consume, Sweigard said.
Ulevich didn’t answer questions submitted to him from the Press Journal about whether the district would consider charging landowners based on water use or issue irrigation permits to growers.
Sweigard said he’s certain other landowners are unhappy about the fees but are afraid to speak up because they fear the district will retaliate.
Teen Challenge and the district were embroiled in feuding for years, partly because the district would blame the camp’s teens for thefts and other crimes in the area, Sweigard said.
And while tensions have eased under Ulevich, the compulsory irrigation fees remain a sore spot, he said.
“We feel we have a gun to our heads,” Sweigard said.
The Press Journal looked at a half a dozen water districts that provide irrigation. Some set their rates according to water volume, some issue permits and all charge significantly less than St. Johns.
St. Johns is unusual in having an elaborate, motorized diesel-pump system that all landowners pay equal fees to support, regardless of water use.
Not far from St. Johns, the Indian River Farms Water Control District charges landowners $17.50 an acre per year.
Those who want to irrigate pay $250 for a permit and must pump the water themselves into basins on their land, said David Gunter, the district’s superintendent.
In Fellsmere, all property owners within the city pay the water control district $10 an acre each year.
Sun-Ag, also known as Fellsmere Farms, runs seven pump stations it owns to draw water from a reservoir to irrigate its property, said Rodney Tillman, the district’s superintendent.
The South Florida Water Management District issues 20-year permits with a range of one-time fees that depend on use. Martin and southern St. Lucie counties lie within this district.
A rancher wanting to water up to 1,200 head of cattle but not irrigate pastures pays $350 for 20 years.
Someone with 14 acres of groves pays $350. A large grower with up to 23,000 acres pays $5,600.
In any of those scenarios, Brown would pay a fraction of what he’s forking out to the St. Johns district. He estimates he pays $9 an acre yearly to irrigate his groves in Punta Gorda.
Punta Gorda falls within the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Growers there pay a maximum of $4,500 for a six-year permit.
He now leases his Indian River County land to a rancher who has a couple hundred head of cattle and pays him $20 an acre. That offsets some of the St. Johns fees but not enough, he said.
Brown said the high fees are not only strangling him financially but are choking the area’s agricultural growth.
“It discourages anyone from coming into Indian River and doing crop farming,” Brown said.