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Shelter Island considers linking home sales to nitrogen-reducing septic system upgrades

The town board must decide whether the law would apply to all transfers of property or just sales, and whether the buyer or seller would be responsible for the $20G cost.

Shelter Island real estate broker Susan Cincotta spoke Sunday about the importance of installing a nitrogen-reducing septic system. (Credit: Newsday / Vera Chinese)

Shelter Island Town is considering requiring the installation of nitrogen-reducing septic systems for all real estate sales, a first-of-its-kind proposal by a Long Island town to improve water quality.

The innovative/advanced onsite wastewater treatment systems, which cost about $20,000 to install but are eligible for Suffolk County rebates and grants in some East End towns, are intended to cut down on nitrogen pollution in drinking water and waterways. Six systems have been installed on Shelter Island and about 30 homeowners have pending applications, said Gregory Toner, a member of the town’s Water Quality Improvement Advisory Committee.

Councilman Albert Dickson floated the concept during a work session on Dec. 11 after nitrates were found at unsafe levels last month in the well at the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church. The building houses the town’s senior nutrition program and a preschool.

“I felt the need to consider what we can do to address this,” Dickson said during the work session.

The board must decide whether the law would apply to all transfers of property or just sales, whether the buyer  or seller would be responsible for the cost and whether owners would have a time frame to comply, said Shelter Island town attorney Bob DeStefano.

The systems use bacteria and oxygen to break down nitrogen before it enters the groundwater.

Nitrates entering the drinking water supply via outdated septic systems is common in the Island Center neighborhood, where the average contamination level is about 6 milligrams per liter and increasing at 1 percent per year. The number of homes reaching 10 milligrams per liter — which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said is unsafe — is rising, said town engineer John Cronin.

Ninety percent of Shelter Island's 2,400 full-time residents get their water from private wells, which do not require regular testing and could pose a costly expense for homeowners if contamination is found.

In March, the town board passed a law requiring the systems for all new construction with living area greater than 1,500 square feet and for any septic upgrade required by Suffolk County. 

In 2017, East Hampton Town became the first on Long Island to require the systems for all new construction, and both Sag Harbor Village and East Hampton Village will host public hearings next month on implementing that mandate.

Shelter Island real estate broker Susan Cincotta was the second person on Shelter Island to install a system, a $19,663.38 Fuji Clean USA system in July, according to town officials. The county directly paid her installer and designer $10,000 and she was reimbursed the $9,663.38 out-of-pocket cost through a town rebate. Cincotta will pay income taxes on the project’s price tag, her PSEG bill increased by about $10 per month and she paid to landscape her yard following the work.

Cincotta said the expenses were a small price to pay to improve water quality on Shelter Island and now works to educate her friends and neighbors on the benefits of the systems.

If more systems are not installed, “no one will come to this beautiful place because it won’t be beautiful,” she said.

Notable nitrogen-related dates

August 2017: East Hampton Town became the first Long Island town to require nitrogen-reducing systems for all new construction.

March 2018: The Shelter Island Town Board passed a law requiring the systems for all new construction with living area greater than 1,500 square feet.

January 2019: East Hampton Village will hold a public hearing on mandating the systems for new construction on Jan. 18; Sag Harbor Village will hold a hearing on Jan. 8.

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