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Miami-Dade County: No new toilets, sinks allowed for businesses in Coconut Grove

Business has been slow at the Blonde Tulip, a quaint flower shop in the Mayfair in Coconut Grove, so Pearl Meyer figured she could boost earnings by adding a coffee bar. She was stunned when Miami-Dade County denied her a permit for a new sink.

“It’s frustrating,” said Meyer. “We’ve been dealing with the permit process for six months, and this was just the latest hang up.”

Meyer is not alone. The Blonde Tulip’s was one of 12 permit applications to add a sink, toilet or shower in Coconut Grove that have been denied since August, when the county put a moratorium on any new sewage outflow to the main pump station that serves the neighborhood.With higher-than-average summer rains seeping into the county’s aging pipe system, and more raw sewage flowing through than it was designed to handle, Pump Station #9 has reached capacity. Hence the moratorium, which stands to pinch the pocketbooks of everything from small businesses like Meyer’s to large developments, like a planned overhaul of West Coconut Grove.

The county says work is already under way to repair the aged facility at 2202 SW 26th Lane and will continue for 18 months. The cost could exceed $1 million.

But the moratorium represents the first immediate negative consequence of the county waiting too long to fix its aging sewage system and water treatment plants.

“This is the biggest job killer that will hit our neighborhood for the next 10 years,” said Marc Sarnoff, vice chairman of the Miami City Commission. “Restaurants that could open in CocoWalk are going to go to Midtown or Miami Beach.”

Added Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez: “Yes, it has a direct impact on economic activities in Dade County. We’re facing capacity issues; we know that.”

Gimenez stressed that in most of the 12 cases — the county said it could not immediately provide the names of all the businesses affected — the county’s Regulatory and Economic Resources Department is working to help the shop owners. The management of Mayfair, for instance, proved that the center has empty stores, clearing the way for other establishments to add sinks, showers or drains without a net increase in outflow.

The problems stem from a decades-old sewer system with crumbling pipes and water treatment plants badly in need of renovation and replacement. They are in such bad shape that the U.S. Justice Department, Environmental Protection Agency, and Florida Department of Environmental Protection sanctioned the county in May, saying it was not abiding by the federal Clean Water Act.

The parties have been negotiating for a resolution. Immediate repairs for 13,000 miles of piping and six water treatment plants could reach about $1.4 billion, though Water and Sewer Department Director John Renfrow recently said the county needs a 12-year, $12 billion overhaul.

The problem in Coconut Grove is the first anyone can recall from that pump station since the last time the feds visited in 1993, when they mandated that the facility run a maximum of 10 hours a day. The county ultimately signed a consent decree and paid a $2 million fine.

“This reflects atrocious planning on the part of the county,’’ said first-term Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, whose district includes Coconut Grove. He wants repair work to start as soon as possible.

The Grove isn’t the only area with pump issues. Thirty-eight of the county’s 1,027 pump stations can no longer accept additional sewage. The vast majority of those are in Florida City and Homestead, with others in Hialeah and Coral Gables.

Still, the moratorium is bad news for the struggling Grove, which has seen foot traffic and business drop considerably in recent years.

Manny Gonzalez, of the Coconut Grove Business Improvement District, said the moratorium has stopped a handful of new restaurants and shops from opening. He said it’s especially painful at CocoWalk and Mayfair, large malls struggling to attract new tenants.

Some small business owners were reluctant to discuss the issue, acknowledging their landlords were worried it would hurt business or scare off potential tenants. The property manager of the Mayfair declined to answer questions.

William Rivas, the property manager for CocoWalk, said the moratorium was almost certain to affect business in the long run.

“These are obstacles that push us back,’’ he said, noting that it will be more challenging to fill vacant restaurant spaces. “We have a lot of people who want to invest in the Grove. This could be devastating.’’

Another big question mark is a planned six-block overhaul of the West Grove that would include a residential/retail mix and a supermarket. That and other projects may be able to move forward, but they won’t be allowed to open until the pump station is expanded or the developer can prove the new construction won’t produce a net gain in sewage.

Developer Peter Gardner said his Pointe Group is working with the city and county to reach a resolution.

“Our development and several others in the area are critical and essential economic drivers for the Grove, city and the county,” Gardner wrote in a statement to The Miami Herald. “I am confident that the leadership at the city and the county can be relied upon to work with all the local development projects to have them realized in a timely manner.”

Also in the works: the redevelopment of the site where the Grand Bay Hotel once stood.

David Martin of the Terra Group said water and sewer issues could dissuade a developer from choosing a property. “As developers, we look at things like sewage and pump stations,” he said. “These types of issues are very important.”

But he said the moratorium would not stop him from moving forward at the former Grand Bay site.

Mayor Gimenez said he has directed repair work to begin soon on the Grove pump station, as well as elsewhere throughout the county. The Water and Sewer Department has $100 million in the bank, and the plan is to sell another $300 million worth of bonds, possibly as early as February, he said.

“They’ve got to get going on these projects,” Gimenez said.

Sarnoff, who represents the district on the city commission, took a jab at the county for letting the situation reach the breaking point. He said one developer already backed out of plans to purchase a large Grove property on Main Highway because of the sewage problem.

“The county needs to provide proper plumbing,’’ he said. “It’s not sexy, but it’s their job. I guess the commissioners were too busy building ballparks.”