Aerial views of the Bergen Point Sewage Plant in West...

Aerial views of the Bergen Point Sewage Plant in West Babylon. (July 25, 2008) Credit: Newsday/Daniel Goodrich

Voters in Suffolk County approved a ballot proposal last week that will allow development rights from protected county land to be transferred to fire, ambulance, police and library districts.

We urged passage as a worthwhile use of what essentially are sewage credits, provided they are given to projects that enhance vital public services performed by these districts. Now the Suffolk legislature needs to be vigilant in approving applications. In the long-term, however, we need to move beyond a program to transfer credits -- no matter how worthy the proposed project. Unused sewage credits should be retired.

The ballot proposal expanded an existing program that lets sewage credits be transferred to affordable-housing projects. Here's the background: County health code limits the amount of sewage produced, based on the size of a property. Protected land produces no sewage, for which a credit is given. Credits from county-owned land can be transferred to projects that would produce more sewage than allowed based on their size. But more than 300 credits have gone unused because no one requested them for affordable housing. Hence, the proposal to expand the program. The legislature, which must approve all requests for county credits, needs to make sure those requests are appropriate. If a fire district serving an area where the population is growing needs an unused credit to build an extra bay for another truck, that should be approved. A request for a credit to build a new catering facility should not.

But the bigger picture is the worsening problem of nitrogen pollution in our waters. Nitrogen can deplete the water of oxygen and kill marine life, and was linked to last summer's rust and brown tides. At high levels, it is a human health hazard. Septic and sewage systems are prime contributors of nitrogen loading. We need to reduce the amount of nitrogen we produce, not move it from one part of the county to another by shifting development rights. The legislature should act to retire development credits that go unused instead of making them available in perpetuity.

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