From Oceanside to Orient and Manhasset to Montauk, the annual suburban ritual of raking, bagging and collecting leaves is about to get under way again, as the air gets crisp and the days grow shorter.

Long Island's towns spend millions of dollars on leaf disposal, and as complaints about taxes get louder, officials in some towns are looking at ways to cut expenses by changing their leaf pickup programs.

But not on Shelter Island.

The tiny town nestled between the north and south forks collects no leaves at all. No bagged leaves at the curbside. No vacuuming up piles of leaves from any streets.

Homeowners and landscapers bring their leaves to the town's composting facility on their own. And, after a year or so, the leaves have decayed and are sold back to those homeowners and landscapers as mulch and compost.

"We come here to the dump anyway, so what's the difference?" asked Joan Zaleski, a full-time resident of 17 years, as she brought paper and plastic to the town recycling center earlier this month.

For her, hauling her own grass and leaves to the dump has become an autumn ritual.

"It's part of the way of life," she explained. "Shelter Island is small. That's why our taxes are low. We have no mail delivery either [everyone picks up mail at the Post Office] . . . it's just a way of life out here."

Some towns compost leaves at their own facilities or bring them to a commercial compost firm. Others have them trucked out of state. Riverhead looks for farmers who are willing to take them and build a compost pile.

East Hampton, badly in debt, wants to close down its leaf collection program. Southampton and Riverhead are looking to lower their cost. And, in April, Oyster Bay changed its leaf collection from a townwide one month pickup to having residents put out leaves with recycling in an attempt to cut costs.

"We started composting and grinding out of necessity," explained Highway Superintendent Mark Ketcham, who runs the town's compost facility. "We try to be as green as possible."

Shelter Island closed its landfill nearly 20 years ago, when the state banned open burning to cut down on air pollution. All of the leaves on Shelter Island are turned into compost, just as all of the branches and tree stumps are chopped into wood chips and mulch, which is sold back to contractors and landscapers.

The town gets $20 a cubic yard for the compost, and $30 a cubic yard for its double-ground mulch. They charge $3 a yard to deliver it.

Ketcham takes pride in Shelter Island compost, boasting that he makes sure that the pile of decaying matter isn't tainted with sand and street debris like cigarette butts. It makes for better compost, he said.

As he walked through the 150-foot long windrows, showing how piles of leaves slowly disintegrate over a year, losing more than half their volume and turning into compost, Ketcham boasted that he can actually tell how well Shelter Island's economy is going just by looking at the mulch.

Shelter Island's composting facility takes in between 3,000 and 4,000 cubic yards of leaves and grass a year, and last year they started with about 3,000 cubic yards of compost - about two years' accumulation.

The economy was bad, Ketcham explained, and no landscapers wanted it for bedding or to put down under fresh sod. But, this year the economy has bounced back. "It's all gone now," he said.

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