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Suffolk lawmakers approve referendums on sewer expansion

Voters in parts of Babylon, Islip and Brookhaven will vote Jan. 22 on measures to authorize spending of $390 million in federal and state funds to connect 5,500 homes to sewers. 

The H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge, headquarters

The H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge, headquarters of the Suffolk County government. Photo Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

Suffolk lawmakers on Tuesday scheduled three referendums for Jan. 22 in parts of Babylon, Islip and Brookhaven towns that could lead to the county's largest sewer expansion in decades.

The ballot measures, if approved, would authorize spending of $390 million in federal and state money to connect about 5,500 homes to sewers. No county money is involved, county officials said. The property owners would be assessed hundreds of dollars a year for operating costs.

The measures would expand the Southwest Sewer District in Babylon Town and in Great River in Islip and create a new sewer district and treatment plant in the Mastic and Shirley area.

Lawmakers, environmentalists, labor unions and contractors said the projects, known as the Suffolk County Coastal Resiliency Initiative, would improve water quality, boost economic development and protect against storm surges by strengthening wetlands. The county legislature unanimously authorized placing the measures on the ballot. 

Backers say the new sewer hookups will reduce seepage of nitrogen from in-ground septic tanks into bays and rivers, which can damage wetlands.

Sewers also would enable increased economic development in business districts.

"This is a big step for the Third Legislative District, a big step for our environment," Legis. Rudy Sunderman (R-Shirley) said of his district, which covers the Forge River area.

Presiding officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) called it a "unique opportunity" to tap federal and state money granted to Suffolk County for post-superstorm Sandy coastal resiliency.

"This is an opportunity to reach thousands of homes with sewers, which some people have been waiting for since creation of the district 40 years ago," he said.

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), who represents the Great River area, said he supports holding the referendums, but did not say whether he thought voters should approve them.

"Certainly, there's a tremendous value, not only to property owners, but to the environment and community," said Cilmi.

But he expressed concern that the language on the ballot does not make mention of the annual cost to homeowners.

"At the end of the day, $800 a year is a lot of money to spend," Cilmi said of the average projected maintenance cost in Great River.

Cilmi said county officials have assured him property owners will be informed of the annual costs in meetings with civic groups.

Property owners who join the sewer districts would pay from $470 to $755 a year for operations, maintenance and to repay a $16.4 million state loan. Only those connecting to the sewers would have to pay.

Only registered voters in areas that would connect to the sewer districts will be able to participate in the referendums.

Jason Elan, spokesman for County Executive Steve Bellone, said, “We are now one step closer to advancing the single largest investment in wastewater infrastructure in Suffolk County  in more than 40 years.”

Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors' Association, said the projects represent "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide sewer connections to thousands of homes that would not otherwise be connected."

Also Tuesday, county lawmakers approved connecting 1,491 residential parcels, at a cost of $8.4 million, to the Southwest Sewer District. The work, which does not require a public referendum because it's all grant-funded and there's no cost to homeowners, is scheduled to begin in 2020.

The ballot measure is scheduled for January because the state agreed in July to convert $57.6 million of the funding from loans to grants, reducing the amount residents will have to pay back. It was too late at that point to put the measure on the November ballot, Deputy County Executive Peter Scully said.
 

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