The Sewers Of Ramblersville / Abandoning cesspools would ease pollution of Jamaica Bay, but hookup costs are a concern

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SOME COMMUNITIES want new parks. Some communities seek

newly paved streets. But the residents of Ramblersville, a little-known South

Queens community that predates nearby Howard Beach, are finding that a new

sewer system is just what the state ordered.

The system is the area's first; the community was founded in the mid-1800s.

Ramblersville, otherwise known as Old Hamilton Beach, is a quaint,

out-of-the-way community at the southern tip of Howard Beach bounded by Kennedy

Airport to the east and Jamaica Bay to the south. Cross Bay Boulevard in

Howard Beach is the area's major means of egress. The tiny community has only

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about 60 homes.

Residents, politicians and environmentalists alike agree that the $825,000

sewer project, mandated by state environmental law to minimize pollution of

waterways like Jamaica Bay, was long overdue.

City Councilman Alfonso Stabile (R-Ozone Park), who helped secure more than

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$800,000 for the project through the city's capital budget, had warned

residents at a public forum in January to move ahead with the installation of

sewers in Ramblersville or risk possible environmental sanctions such as steep

fines and even evictions. Most of the money was city Department of

Environmental Protection funds allocated for water and sewer improvement

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projects.

"If we don't meet the state environmental mandate, then people are going to

have problems," Stabile said. "Ramblersville is one of the last communities in

Queens I know of that is still without a sewer system. And that's saying

something because most politicians don't even know where this community is

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located."

Some Ramblersville residents had long been discharging their household

waste directly into surrounding waterways-including Jamaica Bay. Other homes

had cesspools, which can fail and allow raw sewage to mix with groundwater. The

groundwater then eventually finds its way into the bay.

According to Andrew Willner of the New York-New Jersey Baykeeper, an

environmental group dedicated to the preservation and protection of waterways,

fines for polluters can reach $25,000 per day, and certain pollution offenses

can even bring jail time.

Willner said that runoff from Kennedy Airport, rainwater that mixes with

raw sewage and various fuel spills also can affect fish and water quality in

the bay.

But, Willner also said that the overall water quality of Jamaica Bay-a

wildlife refuge where waterfowl live year-round-has improved significantly

since the 1960s, when pollution was unacceptably higher.

"The sewer project is a good thing," Willner said. "It means the community

is coming into compliance, and that can only help the bay."

Dan Mundy, president of Jamaica Bay EcoWatchers, a small group of longtime

bay users, agrees. "Less raw pollution will help the ecology of the bay. The

project is a step in the right direction."

Ramblersville homeowners also favor the environmental benefits of the

project, yet many express trepidation regarding the uncertain costs of this

major and somewhat complex project.

Among their chief concerns is the cost to hook up to the main sewer, to be

located at Church Street and 102nd Street. According to Tom Campagna, borough

engineer for the Queens borough president's office, homeowners are individually

responsible for their line into the sewer main.

Campagna said hookup costs to homeowners are usually assessed on a per-foot

basis from the building line to the sewer connection, costing $60 to $80 a

foot.

"There's a lot of money at stake," said a Ramblersville resident who

declined to give his name. He estimated that hookup costs could approach

$30,000 per homeowner, a figure that both Stabile and city officials dismissed

as "way off base." Although hookup costs vary with the distance a homeowner is

from the main sewer, city officials put costs closer to $1,000-$3,000.

Other residents expressed concerns that, given the bog-like composition of

Ramblersville's soil, the sewers may not have enough solid foundation to rest

on, thus compromising the project's engineering integrity.

"What if they dig and there's no sand or solid ground below?" asked a

homeowner from Bayview Street who did not want to be named. "Then we're back to

where we started from. This whole project is full of problems. We'll need a

miracle [to get the project completed]."

Cruz Construction, a Holmdel, N.J.-based company, was awarded the contract

to build the main sewer. Work commenced in January and is to be completed by

August, according to documents from the city's Department of Design and

Construction. However, Campagna estimates that the sewer won't be ready for

connection for another four to five months. Cruz refused to comment on the

project. However, Campagna said the company has told him that the project

should be fairly straightforward and that the company does not anticipate any

problems with soil conditions.

Further complicating the project are the easements, or legal agreements,

between neighbors that may be required to hook up everyone to the main sewer,

due to the proximity of the houses in Ramblersville. Some residents might need

access to their neighbor's property for the sewer hookup.

Stabile promised homeowners in January that he would provide an attorney to

help obtain easements. He also said he would look into low-interest or

interest-free loans to help people pay for the sewer connections.

"We're not looking to put a financial burden on anyone," Stabile said.

However, the councilman said recently that most people won't require

financial help because the project will get "much closer to many homes than

originally thought," thereby eliminating the need for most loans and easements.

Alex Lutz, chief of staff to Stabile, called Ramblersville a "jigsaw

puzzle" of commingled private- and city-owned property that makes

infrastructure improvements-like the sewer project-that much more difficult.

The city can't legally build on private property, which poses additional

problems when trying to extend sewer service to homes isolated by private

tracts of land.

"What we'll have to do is go to the end of the city-owned land and try to

connect those homes from there," Campagna said. "Our intention is to get as

many people connected to the system for as little money as possible."

Catherine Doxsey, president of the Ramblersville-Hawtree Civic Association,

said she was relieved that the project is finally getting done.

"I thank God for this project," Doxsey said. "We've been standing still for

90 years. We don't have a choice. Our homes are at stake."

Active in the Ramblersville community for more than three decades, Doxsey

said she enjoys the area's natural beauty that allows her to feed ducks in her

backyard. "I believe that the environment has to come first. When we're long

gone, the environment will still be here.

"Everyone needs to clean up their act."

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