Equal Time: Clean water should be a nonnegotiable item

As a community, we are rightly beginning to grapple with the issues that degrade the water quality of both the aquifers and the bays. While the town can address some problems such as runoff or dog poop through projects and regulations, we also need to address water quality issues comprehensively in the town’s master plan.
One of the key issues is how we handle human waste.

Sewage pollutants seeping into our groundwater wind up in our drinking water and drift into our treasured estuaries. These water bodies are the sources of food, recreation and aesthetics that feed our economy and support our lifestyle. Except for Greenport, Southold Town relies solely on individual septic systems for wastewater treatment. The traditional septic systems we use dispense nitrates at levels that exceed the drinkable level of 10 mg/liter by four times.

Suffolk County relies on lot size to let natural processes dilute the level of nitrates to an acceptable average. The Suffolk County Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan (SCCWRMP) estimates that at a density of four dwelling units per acre, nitrate levels hover near the drinkable limit. The county Department of Health therefore requires a minimum lot size of a half-acre, with recommendations to increase it to one acre, in order to avoid overloading the capacity of the land to adequately purify our waste.

One-acre zoning is a suburban concept. In Southold, lots historically have been sized at a sixth to a third of an acre in our hamlets and along the bay coastlines. In fact, 37 percent of Southold lots are less than a half-acre in size and 13 percent are less than a quarter-acre. Current planning guidelines recommend a minimum of seven dwelling units per acre. So concentrating density in our hamlets is in keeping with both our heritage and the latest planning concepts. The draft economic chapter of Southold’s master plan puts forward ideas in support of hamlet development. One idea, however, should be dropped: the transfer of sanitary credits.

A sanitary credit is a development right. It permits building to higher density in one location, because land is preserved elsewhere. But this begs the issue. Hamlet densities are already at levels that endanger our water supply. Most of our compact development lies adjacent to harbors, where any waste from these communities will negatively impact the bays. We cannot attain the desired densities at the expense of degraded water quality; rather we need to solve the issue of sewage. Clean water should be a nonnegotiable item.

It is possible for municipalities to impose more restrictive measures than SCDOH requirements. For instance, East Hampton has overlay districts regulating stormwater runoff and septic design. In order to protect a fragile environment similar to the East End’s, the New Jersey pine barrens requires either a minimum lot size of 3.2 acres for traditional septic systems or specialized systems to further purify wastewater in areas of greater density. Our goal? To do no harm and restore damaged environments.

These are things Southold can do:
• Create parkland within the hamlet areas.
• Require individual septic systems that provide better treatment of wastewater.
• Create small community sewers, which can be designed to minimize infrastructure, waste and contaminants.
• Create a municipal sewer district and plant.
We need to live gently on the land by integrating human activities in a manner that preserves a healthy environment. We want future generations to enjoy the natural riches we have been blessed with.

Ms. Berry is an architect and planner who lives in Orient.