Dozens of Oak Beach residents are asking Babylon Town, Suffolk County and the Suffolk County Water Authority to fully fund a new multimillion-dollar water system that the county health department is mandating for the homeowners.
The Suffolk County health department has said the three wells that 56 homes in the barrier beach community rely on need to be replaced with a new water system due to age and the threat of contamination.
Babylon Town checks the water each year, and a 2015 town report said there had been three incidents of E. coli bacteria in the wells, while a report in 2019 cited elevated iron levels. Residents were advised beginning in 2017 not to drink the water, and the health department has threatened “tens of millions” of dollars in fines against the town if a new system isn’t built.
The 200 homeowners in Oak Beach have $4,000 annual leases with the town, which owns the land. The largely seasonal residents have private wells, but under state law, if five or more homes are on one well it is considered a public-regulated utility, town officials said.
The cost of building the system is $8.8 million. The town is bonding for $6 million and residents of the 56 homes must shoulder the bond’s debt service at a cost of $1,500 annually for 30 years. After new wells and a treatment plant are built, residents will have to pay a plumber from $3,000 to $15,000 to connect their homes to the system, water authority officials said.
“They should fund it all,” said Courtney Alexander, 56, whose family has owned their home since 1921. “Having been here 100 years and having paid taxes without complaint to fund everyone else’s infrastructure, it is not appropriate to have the town mandate that families have to pay.”
The town has received $2.8 million in federal and state funding and is using $100,000 from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to offset costs. But residents said the town and county need to find other funding sources.
James Schappert, 47, said that when all costs are added in, he will be paying five times the average annual water bill of a Suffolk homeowner.
“The only thing we’re asking for is an equitable agreement,” he said.
Joe Guarino, principal environmental analyst for the town, said the situation in Oak Beach is unique and that the homeowners’ leases state they must provide their own drinking water.
“The county felt the system was becoming a health threat, and the only hammer they had was to bring us in as the landowner,” he said. “It’s not an apples to apples [comparison] with the mainland; it’s a completely different situation.”
Kevin McCaffrey, presiding officer for the Suffolk County Legislature, said while legislators will look for funding, he doesn’t think the county can contribute because it’s a private water system and not an extension of the water authority’s existing system.
“There’s a significant amount of public money going into this supporting these 56 homes, so I think everybody has done their part trying to make this work,” McCaffrey said.
In a letter sent to residents last week, water authority CEO Jeff Szabo stated that the agency is discussing with Babylon Town officials the pursuit of grants to help “bring overall project costs down further.”
Construction on the system has begun and is expected to be finished next summer, Guarino said.
“We always have our ears out looking for additional funding,” he said. “But with us building at this point, while I won’t say $1,500 is it, it’s getting closer to that date where we would say that.”