By Larry Barszewski

Ocean Ridge has been neglecting hundreds of water valves that are part of its drinking water distribution system, to the point where town crews don’t even know where the valves are anymore.

That means when a water line ruptures, crews are forced to dig along the water line until they can uncover a buried valve — and then hope that the valve works so the water can be shut off and the line repaired.

On Inlet Cay, one of two islands in town, the only way to repair a break to the main line west of Spanish River Drive is to shut off water to the entire island, Town Manager Lynne Ladner said.

Ladner brought up the water valve issue at the Town Commission’s July 10 budget workshop. She included $50,000 in her proposed budget to begin addressing the valves.

“The $50,000 item was to get everyone’s attention that this was a problem,” Ladner said. “We have valves throughout the community. Over time they have gotten buried and we need to locate them.”

Commissioners requested Ladner come back in August with a better idea of the total cost for all the needed work.

“They’re going to go out and find every valve, and then they’re going to make a cut in the line, and they’re going to raise the valve, elevate it to current ground level, and put a concrete collar around it, so that in the future, we know where the valve is,” Ladner said.

“We’re also going to exercise the valve so that we know it turns on and we can shut it off and bring it back on without blowing the main on either side — because most of our valves have not been tested and exercised in 20 or more years.”

There are about 550 valves in town, including those connected to fire hydrants. It will cost between $950 and $1,250 to raise, exercise and pour a concrete collar for a valve “if valve is in working order,” Public Works Director Billy Armstrong said in an email to The Coastal Star.

That means the minimum repair cost could exceed $500,000.

The town has a general idea where the valves are, but not specific locations, Ladner said.

Commissioners aren’t sure whom to blame and Ladner, who officially became town manager in March, said she doesn’t know what the previous manager was told.

Commissioner Ken Kaleel was dumbfounded when Ladner told commissioners that Armstrong, in his current position for only a few years, “has wanted to bring this issue forward for a couple of years and has been unsure of whether he should or not because of the potential cost of this project, so he’s opted not to.”

“Lynne, you need to get control of this,” Kaleel said. “That should have never been an issue, ever, that he makes that determination as to whether something should come forward when it’s something that we needed.”

Kaleel said he knows that in the 1990s, crews did the needed maintenance on the valves.

“They were like on clockwork. They would exercise [the valves],” Kaleel said. “Somehow, we knew to do this stuff and all of a sudden, we don’t know to do this stuff.”
In the email, Armstrong said he did alert others.

“I have brought this problem to previous administration many times in the past,” he said, “as per valves not shutting off, or not working at all.”

The situation is reminiscent of the 2019 discovery that the town had not been taking care of its fire hydrants. Officials found four of the town’s listed 141 fire hydrants were missing or not working at all, and another 32 were functioning below acceptable standards.

“During the time of hydrant situation 2019, many other issues such as valves were brought to my boss at the time,” Armstrong said in the email.

Mayor Geoff Pugh said maybe Town Engineer Lisa Tropepe should have done more, though Ladner said Tropepe doesn’t deal with maintenance issues. Pugh said it seems the subject would have come up when pipes were being installed.

“She is the infrastructure queen in this town. So, if you know there are valves that should be checked on, then she should have brought it up. In fact, she should have brought up the fire hydrants as well,” Pugh said. “Show me, if you can, any of the town engineer’s reports that she’s been writing up that says anything about the valves.”

Contacted by The Coastal Star by email after the meeting, Tropepe replied she was not familiar with the valve situation.

“Annually the Town Commission painstakingly reviews/balances their budgets which include infrastructure enhancements and maintenance responsibilities,” she said.

“Regarding buried water valves in general, that situation occurs from time to time. If water valves are located in a grassed area, it is pretty common that dirt and grass grow over it,” said Tropepe, who is under contract with the town. “If a resident finds that a valve on their property is buried, they should notify their landscapers and/or the Town.”

Ladner said part of the problem is due to the town’s drinking water setup, where Boynton Beach provides the water but the town owns the pipes and is responsible for any repairs and maintenance.

“We own our own distribution system, but we do not manage our distribution system,” she said. “Boynton does our billing. Boynton is responsible for putting all of the meters in at every location, but we are responsible for the capital plan.”

The town does not have a certified water operator that typically makes sure water valves and hydrants are checked, Ladner said.

The fire hydrant situation was uncovered when a car slammed into a town hydrant. The town’s newly named public works supervisor at the time — who left the town about a year later — arrived on scene to inspect the damage and discovered extensive corrosion to the hydrant’s hose connector valves.

The hydrants should have been on a regular maintenance schedule, but hadn’t been worked on for 10 years. At the time, the town estimated it cost $100,000 to make the needed repairs and that another $30,000 a year was needed for annual hydrant maintenance.

House construction gets another extension

At its July 10 meeting, the Town Commission extended the construction deadline for the home at 6273 N. Ocean Blvd. until its Aug. 8 meeting, when it’s likely to give a requested extension until Feb. 15, 2024.

The home also must have windows on its street-facing front by Nov. 1.

The home has been under construction for eight years and neighbors are fed up with the delays and the inconvenience of living next door to a construction zone for so long.

Commissioners want the town attorney to include in the agreement that since the home won’t be on next year’s property tax rolls because it won’t be finished by Jan. 1, that the owner make a payment to the town equal to the taxes that would have been owed had it been completed this year. The agreement will also include liquidated damages if the project runs into any more delays.

Commissioner Carolyn Cassidy said her calculations show the town has lost out on almost $1 million in property tax revenues since 2017 because the house was not finished during that time.

Representatives for owner Andrew Rivkin said the work cannot be completed until water and electricity are connected. Those have been delayed because they must come from the west side of State Road A1A and the lines be placed under the roadway, requiring Florida Department of Transportation approvals.

In other town news:

• The commission gave initial approval to a new beach sign ordinance, which seeks to keep property owners from discouraging people — through the placement of “No Trespassing” or “Private Property” signs in the middle of the beach — from legally accessing public beach areas.

The new ordinance would require that any signs be placed at the dune toe line, be facing east or west, and be no bigger than 18 inches square. Property owners will have 30 days to move any existing signs once the ordinance takes effect.

• Commissioners are considering changes to make it easier for property owners to get coastal construction projects approved and change the way the town calculates how big a project can be. They asked the town attorney to bring back a new proposal for commissioners to consider in August.

• The Traffic Safety Committee of the Palm Beaches awarded Police Officer Aleksey Sasov its Distinguished Service Award for Enforcement at a June reception. Ladner said Sasov made more than 500 traffic stops in a one-year period.

“One of the reasons why that is significant is he works night shifts, so he’s not seeing all the heavy, busy day traffic,” Ladner said. “That’s a lot of speeders that come over bridges and race through town thinking it’s a small, sleepy town. It’s people with outstanding issues on their driver’s license that he’s alerted to via the LPR (license plate reading cameras), things like that.”

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