Facing possible fines from Suffolk County, the Babylon Town Board on Tuesday authorized construction of a new $3 million water system for Oak Beach.
The system will include new pipes and a centralized treatment facility for about 50 homes on the barrier beach, replacing a patchwork system of pressurization and treatment at each house that county health officials have warned is vulnerable to contamination.
The measure passed by a 4-0 vote but with a distinct lack of enthusiasm from town officials and the homeowners who will be served by the system and will be responsible for most of its cost. Residents will see water bills of about $1,500 a year to pay for building costs, according to town estimates, five times what many now pay.
"This is the last thing we want to be doing," Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer said in an interview. "If the residents say there's no issue, we're fine with it. Unfortunately, another agency is telling us that if we don't do this, they're going to start leveling fines."
Babylon Town would be liable for fines and other sanctions from the county because it owns the land in Oak Beach and is, in effect, the landlord for homeowners there, who have long-term leases on their parcels. The amount of any possible fines was not specified.
Town and Suffolk County health officials say the independently run water systems that now serve those residents violate sanitary code requirements. Past testing has shown the presence of E. coli bacteria and elevated levels of iron, copper and lead, according to a July town report.
Other Oak Beach homes served by private wells or smaller shared wells are not obligated to sign onto the new system.
Many of the affected residents, including almost all of those who spoke at the public hearing preceding Tuesday's vote, say that regular testing ensures the safety of their water, and that the new system is a needless cost -- especially since it will rely on the same well water they have always used.
"I have no problem with my water," said Thomas Newman, a year-round resident for 23 years. "You're going to take it through the county, the town, somebody's water system, and give us our own water back." He also worried that the $1,500 projected annual bill would rise: "How many government projects come in under budget?"
There may be some reason to hope that bill could actually shrink. Town officials have said that affected homeowners would pay for building costs over 30 years, but under a proposal from State Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore), who represents the area, repayment would be spread out to 2065, the end of the current lease term, a move that would lower monthly payments.
Schaffer said he supported that idea and that town officials are evaluating it.