Bithlo: Now a real Orange County sewer?

Five years ago, a sharply divided Orange County Commission voted to oversize water and sewer lines running to a development on State Road 419. It was a big deal to environmentalists, who complained that commissioners were opening the door to unfettered growth in the sensitive lands east of the Big Econlockhatchee River, the county's urban-service boundary. That, they argued, would encourage the type of suburban sprawl that has already gobbled up much of east Orange. Backers of the big lines said the county was only preparing for the inevitable. Development was on its way.

The inevitable isn't here yet, but Orange County utilities is trying to hook up hundreds of Bithlo residents, who live east of the Econ, to county water and sewer lines.

The move is an outgrowth of what the commission did five years ago, in that it allowed the oversized water lines only for properties that had already been developed, or approved for development. (In other words, new mega-subdivisions aren't eligible). There is no specific reason why the county is suddenly interested in hooking up Bithlo, other than the fact that it had to be done sooner or later.

Implications for growth management aside, the move is causing something of a stir in Bithlo. As anyone who has ventured out that way knows, Bithlo is a bastion of trailer parks and prefab houses lining State Road 50. Largely -- though by no means exclusively -- low income, Bithlovians have a tendency to distrust the government. That came through loud and clear in the first meeting the county held on the sewer issue.

To force Bithlo to hook up to county water and sewer, Orange County Utilities must convince 75 percent of the homeowners to OK it. The county is currently holding community meetings with the people of Bithlo and have no firm date for the balloting deadline.

There are two holdups: First, the town's poverty precludes many property owners from paying the fees -- between $2,000 and $3,000 -- to switch from well and septic to the county sewer and water, although the county will offer financial incentives for the low- to median-income property owners. Second, Bithlo has a high percentage of renters, which utilities department deputy director Daniel Allen says is "something we haven't seen before." Indeed, property owners who rent out low-end trailers might not qualify for financial assistance and may have little incentive to vote for the hook-up.

Allen stresses that Orange County Utilities has no horse in the race and in fact is merely laying out options for the Bithloites' approval or rejection. So far, he admits, they're likely leaning toward the latter.

"It wasn't too positive," Allen says of the first community meeting. "The people who were the most vocal were negative."

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