When Florida Marine Transporters decided to build a larger office building in Mandeville, the company wanted to create a state-of-the-art office building with features like a geothermal heating and air-conditioning system and a sprinkler system rather than fire escapes, project manager Kenny Pullen said.
But the inland marine company has hit a major snag with the building it hopes to occupy by late September. Tammany Utilities, the parish-owned water system, can’t provide the pressure needed for the sprinkler system, and FMT is turning to a neighbor, the gated Beau Chene subdivision, for help.
The question of whether to allow the office building to connect to Beau Chene’s private water system is roiling the tony subdivision, and it’s not clear what the board of directors will decide when it meets Friday night.
Many residents who spoke at the homeowners association’s annual meeting last month were vocally opposed to running a water line to FMT’s property, which lies just behind Evangeline Drive.
Among the concerns raised by the opponents were potential legal liability for the association if the sprinkler system were to fail, the potential burden on Beau Chene’s water system and a fierce desire to keep the water system closed.
“Why is this our problem?” asked Robert Reich, a lawyer who lives in Beau Chene.
John Pasqua, who lives on Evangeline Drive, criticized FMT for not clearly communicating its intentions. “It takes a good neighbor to be a good neighbor,” he said.
Pullen said the company tried other avenues, such as running a line from another location and asking to tie the site in to Mandeville’s water system. But the other location, near Papa Sam’s Snowballs, had even lower pressure, he said, and the Mandeville system is too far away.
Crossing Causeway Boulevard to access water on the east side isn’t feasible either, and installing a chemical fire suppression system is cost-prohibitive at $3 million, he said.
That left FMT with two alternatives: building a 26-foot-tall water tank or asking Beau Chene for help.
Pullen, who said he’s worked with neighbors to address concerns throughout the project, views running a water line 75 feet from Beau Chene to the FMT property as a far simpler solution — and one that won’t put a large tank looming over people’s backyards.
Two neighbors on Evangeline Drive have circulated a petition in favor of the line, Pullen said.
Tests that were run on the neighborhood’s system show that it has excellent pressure, three times greater than is needed, a point that Pullen and the homeowners association made in a letter to residents.
But the water pressure issue was well known to the company early on, according to parish spokesman Ronnie Simpson. That area is served by a 6-inch line, he said, and the parish alerted FMT to the pressure issue before it even broke ground on the building. The company was informed it would have to come up with a solution.
Pasqua and Sheila Hollander, who also lives on Evangeline Drive, are leery of the company’s proposed solution. Pasqua said he considers the threat of a water tank to be a negotiating ploy.
He’s worried about what will happen if fires break out at the office building and at a home on the same loop of the water system simultaneously.
Reich envisions other potential catastrophic scenarios, such as a well failing following a hurricane, leaving the system unable to provide enough water pressure to fight the fires that can follow natural disasters.
Opponents also are worried about liability. In a letter to the homeowners association, Reich said that “hold harmless” agreements often are worthless and have to be backed up by “more than adequate insurance.”
FMT isn’t asking to use Beau Chene’s system for its drinking water or sewerage but only for its sprinkler system. Filling the sprinkler system to pass initial testing will require 325 gallons, and annual testing will require another 45 gallons, the amount of two filled bathtubs.
For that, the company is willing to pay $165 a month, the same amount homeowners pay, and FMT also has offered to pay an unspecified one-time connection fee.
To Hollander, however, the idea of Beau Chene selling its water is objectionable on its face.
Cristina Donovan, chief administrative officer of the homeowners association, said she doesn’t know what the board will decide to do, and she didn’t want to comment on the vote ahead of time.
But not everyone attends the board’s annual meeting. Beau Chene has about 1,500 properties, and maybe 1 percent of those homeowners attend the meeting, she said.
While there are strong opinions on the water question, she said, most residents trust the board to do the right thing.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.