Suffolk County’s largest sewer expansion in decades goes before Suffolk voters today as they decide whether to green light $390 million in sewer projects.
The three separate ballot measures would connect 7,000 properties to sewers in Brookhaven, Islip and Babylon. Planning and construction costs would be covered by federal and state grants for coastal resiliency — most created following superstorm Sandy — while residents would pay an average of $470 to $755 a year for operations and maintenance.
One referendum would create a new sewer district in the Mastic and Shirley area and build a sewage treatment plant at Brookhaven Calabro Airport. The other two referendums would expand the existing Southwest Sewer District; one in West Babylon, North Babylon and Wyandanch around the Carlls River; and the other in Great River along the Connetquot River. Apart from the referendums, grant money will be used to connect 1,500 homes within the existing Southwest Sewer District to the sewer system, and sewers would be extended to 300 homes in the village of Patchogue.
A total of about 9,500 voters are eligible to cast ballots, according to the Suffolk County Board of Elections.
Suffolk County said it will not spend any of its money on the sewer project. If costs come in higher than expected, the projects will go in front of the Suffolk County Legislature. If any of the referendums are rejected, the money for those projects will be lost because of federal deadlines to spend the money, county officials said.
Sewer plans for Suffolk County’s South Shore had sat on government shelves for years, but the costs to residents — potentially thousands of dollars a year — were too high without state or federal grants.
Then came superstorm Sandy. In the wake of the storm’s devastation to the Northeast, federal lawmakers approved tens of billions of dollars, including funds for “coastal resiliency” projects.
A state environmental official in Albany came up with a novel idea, according to Peter Scully, deputy county executive.
Jim Tierney, deputy commissioner for water resources with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, had been reading scientific papers and “connected two dots,” Tierney recalled Thursday.
The first was that nitrogen — which came from unsewered homes using septic tanks and cesspools, as well as lawn fertilizers and other sources — degrades marshlands by over-fertilizing the plants. That makes for lush leaves and greenery above the soil, but creates a shallow root system — like an over-fertilized lawn. The second dot was that healthy marshlands serve as a natural storm barrier, absorbing wave surges.
Adding sewer pipes to homes that now use septic tanks and cesspools would reduce nitrogen flowing into rivers and bays, improving the health of the wetlands. That could then serve as “natural infrastructure” to protect the coast from storm damage.
Tierney called Scully, then the Long Island regional director of the DEC, who in turn called Suffolk and Nassau counties for projects that could qualify, Scully said.
Suffolk County officials received the proposal warmly.
“Needless to say, they were just ecstatic about an idea to do something that’s almost a Holy Grail project,” Tierney said.
A DEC white paper from April 22, 2014, connecting strengthened wetlands with coastal protection, was circulated with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and County Executive Steve Bellone announced they’d received the funding in 2015.
In the area along the Forge River in Brookhaven, some environmentalists and civic groups said the area should cover more residential areas and less commercial areas.
Kevin McAllister, founder of Defend H2O, a Sag Harbor-based environmental group, said he believes the sewer project is more about economic development than reducing nitrogen.
“Economic development through the Mastic-Shirley area is not a bad thing. But let’s be clear on what’s driving the sewer district,” he said.
Scully and other environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy and Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said the sewer lines in residential areas have to go through the commercial corridor along Montauk Highway to get to the wastewater treatment plant.
The 200 commercial properties will have to pay for their own connections, unlike the residential parcels.
The only areas being sewered where there would be more development is along the Montauk Highway Corridor in Mastic, “where sewering has been a goal of local government as part of redevelopment efforts,” Scully said in a statement. The additional nitrogen from the treated water “would be de minimis compared to significant reductions associated with the overall project.”
William and Charese Henry, an engineer and teacher, liked the promised environmental benefits but worried about the price.
“It’s a good thing, but it’s an extra cost,” William Henry said. “We already pay a ton in taxes.”
Others, though, said the fact that federal and state money would pick up most of the costs was too good to pass up.
“It’s an infrastructure investment that’s fair and reasonably priced,” said Steve Affelt, an architect.
Suffolk sewer vote
Polls for about 9,500 Suffolk County voters will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday. The polling places are:
- Forge River area: Mastic Fire House, 1080 Mastic Rd., Mastic
- Carlls River area: Lincoln Elementary School, 300 Park Ave., Deer Park
- Connetquot River area: Great River Fire House, 108 Great River Rd., Great River
Projects at a glance
Shirley/Mastic: 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 2,770 residential parcels and businesses, along with a commercial corridor near Montauk Highway, would be connected initially. Eventually, the treatment plant would allow connections for an additional 10,500 residential units.
The initial project would reduce nitrogen pollution in the river by 193 pounds per day, a 14.4 percent reduction from homes in the watershed. That accounts for additional nitrogen from treated effluent that will be recharged into the ground at the new treatment plant.
Property owners would pay $470 a year. Construction would start in July 2020 and be completed in July 2025.
Great River: The $26.4 million project along the Connetquot River in Great River would connect 474 parcels to the Southwest Sewer District. It would cut nitrogen in the river by 40 pounds a day, a 7.8 percent reduction.
Property owners would pay $755 a year. Construction would start in July 2020 and be completed in December 2022.
Babylon: The $140.2 million project along the Carlls River in West and North Babylon and Wyandanch would connect 2,847 residential parcels to the Southwest Sewer District. It would cut nitrogen pollution in the river by 234 pounds a day, a 33.5 percent reduction.
Property owners would pay $532 a year. Construction would start in September 2020 and be completed in December 2023.