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Suffolk pushes $390M in spending for sewer expansion

The sewer project planned along the Forge River

The sewer project planned along the Forge River in Mastic and Shirley would include construction of a new sewage treatment plant at Brookhaven Calabro Airport. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

A proposal for Suffolk County’s largest sewer expansion in decades that could go before voters this January calls for $390 million in federal and state spending to improve water quality, boost economic development and protect against storm surges.

But the plan also would cost property owners along the South Shore hundreds of dollars a year.

Three proposed ballot measures would authorize the spending to connect about 7,000 homes to sewers by expanding the Southwest Sewer District in Babylon Town and Great River in Islip and creating a new sewer district and treatment plant in the Mastic and Shirley area.

Construction and planning costs would be covered by $373.6 million in state and federal grant money and a $16.4 million state loan. The state and federal money was announced by Suffolk County and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2015 to improve coastal resiliency in the wake of superstorm Sandy. Suffolk County doesn’t plan to spend any money on the projects, officials said.

The push for the ballot measures intensified in July, when the state agreed to convert $60 million of the funding from loans to grants, reducing the amount residents will have to pay back.

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

Pollution from cesspools and septic systems also is blamed for rising nitrogen levels in surface water that result in algal blooms that harm marine life.

Sewers also would enable increased economic development in business districts and spare residents from frequent backups and pump-outs of old septic systems, backers of the proposal say.

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

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said the projects would represent the largest investment in sewer infrastructure in Suffolk County in more than 40 years.

“These projects will have huge benefits for both the environment and the economy,” Bellone said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve water quality by using post-Sandy grant funds to connect nearly 7,000 homes to sewers, eliminating thousands of polluting cesspools and septic systems.”

However, some county lawmakers pointed to the cost to homeowners.

“The potential economic and environmental benefits could be tremendous, with regard to limiting the amount of nitrogen going into the Forge River and the bay,” said Brookhaven Town Councilman Dan Panico, a Republican.

But “the cost is significant, and it’s incumbent on the county to get as much information out to residents as possible and to get the costs as low as possible,” Panico said. “People are going to be faced with an important decision.”

Legislative votes to put the measures on the ballot are expected this fall, according to a timeline presented to lawmakers. Public votes to allow expansion or creation of the sewer districts in each area would be scheduled for Jan. 22, according to a presentation Deputy County Executive Peter Scully made to lawmakers last week.

County lawmakers voted unanimously Wednesday to schedule public hearings on the referendums for Oct. 2.

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

State law allows a public vote on expansion or creation of sewer districts in Suffolk County.

According to Suffolk’s presentation:

  • The $191.3 million project along the Forge River in Mastic and Shirley would include construction of a new sewage treatment plant at Brookhaven Calabro Airport.

Nearly 1,900 residential parcels and businesses along with a commercial corridor near Montauk Highway would be connected to sewers initially. Eventually, the treatment plant would allow connecting an additional 10,500 residential units in the area to sewers .

The initial project would reduce nitrogen pollution in the river by 201 pounds per day, a 15 percent cut.

Property owners would pay $470 a year.

  • The $140.2 million project along the Carlls River in West and North Babylon and Wyandanch would connect 3,958 residential parcels to the Southwest Sewer District. It would cut nitrogen pollution in the river by 477 pounds a day, a 31 percent reduction.

Property owners would pay $532 a year.

  • The $26.4 million project along the Connetquot River in Great River in Islip Town would connect 457 residential parcels to the Southwest Sewer District. It would cut nitrogen in the river by 41 pounds a day, an eight percent reduction.

Property owners would pay $755 a year.

As part of the county’s overall plan — known as the Suffolk County Coastal Resiliency Initiative — the county also plans a $29.6 million sewer expansion in Patchogue to include an additional 513 residential parcels.

Residents there will pay an annual charge established by the village, county officials said. The project will not go before voters.

Nearly 75 percent of homes in Suffolk County — about 360,000 residences — are not connected to sewers and instead rely on cesspools and septic tanks to dispose of their waste.

Plans to expand sewers stalled in the 1970s after the Southwest Sewer District became plagued by cost overruns, mismanagement and corruption. Then in the 1980s, the federal government largely stopped funding sewer infrastructure.

The projects in Islip, Babylon and Brookhaven towns being advanced now have been on the drawing boards for years. But without the federal and state grants, officials deemed the costs too high for homeowners to pay themselves.

The proposed projects will use “low-pressure sewer systems,” that include pumps buried in front of each house. That method is cheaper and causes less construction disruption, county officials said.

County officials say they’ve begun meeting with legislators, environmentalists and civic groups to build support for the plan.

“It’s an opportunity we can’t miss out on,” said Suffolk County Legis. Rudy Sunderman (R-Shirley). “I can’t tell you how exciting it is to have a chance to enhance [the] quality of life and environment in our community.”

But some civic leaders oppose the planned wastewater treatment plant in Mastic and Shirley because it would be located too near their homes. They also say the project wouldn’t connect enough homes near the Forge River to sewers.

“It’s more about expanding and intensifying the commercial use along Montauk Highway than it is remedying the Forge River nitrogen problem,” said Raymond Keenan, president of the Manor Park Civic Association.

With Carl MacGowan and Antonio Planas

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