Pricing Paradise By the Gallon

Alex Caravella, a 73-year-old retiree, stands on his front lawn and ticks off the things he needs to make his grass take on the emerald hue of a golf course. "Money, labor, fertilizer, sunshine and water," he says. "Lots of water."

MARCO ISLAND, Fla. — Alex Caravella, a 73-year-old retiree, stands on his front lawn and ticks off the things he needs to make his grass take on the emerald hue of a golf course.

"Money, labor, fertilizer, sunshine and water," he says. "Lots of water."

Lately, however, Caravella and several hundred other Marco Island residents have been criticized for using too much water.

They dubbed themselves the "500 Club," for the number of residents chided by City Hall for their water use. Every one of them used more than 40,000 gallons in a single month, most of it squirted on lawns, shrubs and manicured hedges.

They are among the highest water users in the state at about 500 gallons per person per day. In contrast, water use in the greater Tampa Bay area is 124 gallons a day per person.


What really ticks off Caravella is that the city wants to force residents to reduce water consumption by raising water rates. When city officials suggested that the heaviest users pay the most -- effectively doubling their bills -- residents were outraged.

It's a struggle that plays out across the Sunshine State: People want lush landscaping to satisfy their dreams of living in a tropical paradise. But paradise requires money and lots of water.

"Why are they picking on the homes that make Marco beautiful?" said Caravella. "We're not wasting water here."

Residents say it takes a lot of water to maintain the island's tropical ambiance. Marco Island, 13 miles south of Naples and on the edge of the Everglades, is flanked by a crescent-shaped, sugar-sand beach on one side, with the bulk of the island's population in single-family homes on canals. Nearly every home and yard is a picture-perfect vision of tropical landscaping.

Originally a clam harvesting village, Marco's population was only 550 until the mid 1960s. Few people could even get to the island because of the rickety wooden bridge leading from the mainland.

Things changed when the Deltona Co. bought much of the island and built dozens of small stucco homes that are now being replaced by large luxury houses.

Today, the island's 15,000 permanent population doubles in the winter.

Unlike other parts of Florida, Marco's residents don't have access to wells or reclaimed water -- save for two golf courses and a handful of condominiums -- so people use drinking water to keep their yards beautiful, thus raising their water consumption.

Like nearly everywhere in Florida, development has increased water use on Marco. As more people build multimillion dollar homes, they install lawns that are lusher and plants that are showier.

Property values on the 24-square-mile island increased 32 percent last year, to a total of taxable value of $9.4-billion.

In one subdivision, two homes are selling for more than $14-million dollars each.

Almost everyone seems to know someone who spent more than $1-million on landscaping, causing a ripple effect: People want their yards to look better than their neighbors'.

"There's an entitlement factor here," said Ruth Moors, 64, a longtime resident.

She and her husband, William, cut their water bills nearly in half -- to less than 8,000 gallons most months -- by using a sensor that cuts off sprinklers when it rains. They say they are especially aware of conservation because their daughter is an environmental lawyer.

During a recent public hearing on raising the water rates, William Moors, 65, was the only person out of two dozen to speak in favor of conservation.

"Water in South Florida is a precious commodity," said Moors. "We all have to do our part to conserve it."

Jennifer Hecker, an environmental policy specialist for the nonprofit Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said it is essential that people in the area conserve now or they will pay more later.

"An alternative water supply is much more costly than the water supply we're accustomed to," she said, citing desalination as a costly example.

Marco Island and most of Southwest Florida rely on groundwater. But as water use rises, the water table lowers and wetlands dry up, harming fish and wildlife habitats.

"I think that water consumers everywhere are accustomed to water being available at an artificially low value," Hecker said. "As our water resources become more limited we have a greater need to protect our water quality and quantity."

To renew the city's water permit with the South Florida Water Management District, Marco Island must demonstrate that it is trying to conserve.

City officials know they must also implement a program to educate residents on conservation and already have started offering free irrigation checkups.

Last week, officials trotted out a second set of rate proposals -- the first was disparaged widely because it did not take lot sizes into account.

Officials hope this new rate structure will help their case with the water district.

The average water customer in Marco pays about $70 for 17,000 gallons of water a month. Under the proposed rates, the average user would pay the same amount -- yet heavy users would pay nearly double the current rate of $2.80 per gallon for any usage in excess of 41,000 gallons.

"I guess nobody wants to pay more for water," sighed City Manager Bill Moss. He has borne the brunt of the wrath for the new water rates.

Critics are found among the island's wealthiest residents, such as Everett Van Hoesen, a 72-year-old former IBM vice president who recently built a 23,000-square-foot Italian villa that he is selling for $15.9-million. He was concerned the city wasn't taking lot size into account.

"Because you have a big property and are a big consumer of water, they want to penalize you," said Van Hoesen, who used 100,000 gallons in one month while watering his sod and filling his several pools. "In my view, it's an unfair proposition. People should be uniformly told to conserve."

Moss, who uses about 13,000 gallons a month and has a little xeriscaping, or drought-resistant landscaping, understands the frustration.

City ordinances aimed at keeping Marco aesthetically pleasing ban more than 20 percent "impervious surface," such as rocks, bricks or stones.

And because many residents don't live on the island full time, the landscaping is left to others. Sprinklers are often left on in the rain.

Bruce Adams, water conservation officer for the South Florida Water Management District, says it's common for wealthy areas to use more water.

"Generally, the more expensive the homes, the more elaborate the landscape and the more propensity there is to put in sophisticated irrigation," said Adams. "There is a correlation between the value of a home and the amount of water used."

Marco Island residents like Caravella say they are conserving as much as they can without inducing ugly brown spots on their lawns.

He says he closely monitors his sprinklers and can't see how he can use less water in the dry season. He needs the water for 50 New Guinea impatiens, a dozen palm trees and a 260-foot hedge.

Once, Caravella did all of his own landscaping, but leg surgery forced him to slow down. Gardening, and his plants, are still his passion.

"This is paradise, no question about it," he said. "And what makes it paradise is the beautiful landscaping."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribunee Business News