After years of fighting in court for the right to run the water and sewer lines that serve a few thousand homes and businesses in the eastern part of the county, Collier County will at long last take over the Orange Tree Utility.
County commissioners voted 4-0 Tuesday to approve a settlement agreement with the small private water utility to run the waterworks, ending a fight that began in 2012. Commissioner Burt Saunders abstained from the vote because he represented the utility for years as a lawyer.
Several residents in attendance celebrated as commissioners voted, hopeful that with the county in charge, they will have better, more reliable service.
“We’re looking forward to dealing with people who believe in public service,” said Shirley Cothran, who lives in Waterways of Naples. “All our interactions with the Collier County water system have been positive, friendly and nice. The same cannot be said for Orange Tree.”
The move can only help a growing population near the Collier County Fairgrounds in the land surrounding Immokalee Road and Randall Boulevard, said Anthony Solomon, executive vice president and owner of The Ronto Group, a development company that owns many of the gated communities and planned developments in the area.
“It’s just been difficult for Orange Tree to get things done,” Solomon said. “They have a small operation, and they knew the county was going to take over, so they weren’t going to go out and hire people, and they can’t get bonds like most utilities. It’s just untenable and has been more than frustrating for customers.”
Some of that frustration has bubbled up in recent months as a new Publix waiting to get its water turned on has sat empty since November with its doors locked, almost taunting residents nearby and in Golden Gate Estates who have been waiting decades for a full-service grocery store.
Publix spokesman Brian West said the company is monitoring the takeover and is hopeful that any change will help move the project forward.
“Our customers are waiting to shop with us at their new store,” West said.
The county will take over the utility March 1.
Orange Tree Utility was created in the 1980s before county utilities ran that far to the east. Developers of the area were allowed to run the utility with a provision that the county could take it over at any time and at no cost once the county’s water and sewer lines caught up with development in the east.
In 2013, commissioners demanded the utility, but owners refused to hand it over, saying they were entitled to some compensation for the improvements and investments in the company. The county sued in 2014.
The county believes the utility has collected around $12 million in revenue over the years from its users, while investing only $10 million back into the system. Utility owners say the money has gone into the system. Rather than fight about the $2 million discrepancy, the settlement agreement will allow the utility, which is run by Roberto Bollt and Stephen Lowitz, to keep the money.
“That’s the cost. That’s the give and take,” said lawyer Brian Armstrong, who represents the county. “Let them have the $2 million and let them walk away with it.”
The utility owners still have developments in the area.
The utility and the county will split the cost to hire an engineering firm to determine if there is any excess capacity in the system. If excess capacity is found, then the county will rebate utility owners the value of that capacity by offering free hookups to the water and sewer lines in their developments.
The settlement is a good deal for residents and the county, Anderson said.
“The county is getting a utility that has a conservative value of $15 million,” Anderson said. “The utility generates an annual gross revenue of $1.7 million. The county is essentially getting a multimillion-dollar revenue asset for nothing. And this settles longstanding, protracted and expensive litigation.”