Southold takes a step toward requiring new septic systems in sensitive areas

Last week, for the first time, the Southold Town Board required a waterfront building project to install an alternative on-site wastewater treatment system. 

It was one of two conditions the board set in granting approval for a coastal erosion hazard-area permit. The project in question involves demolition of an existing single-story waterfront beach cottage near Kenney’s Beach in Southold, and construction of a new one on a piling system.

“The Town Board rarely is in a position to approve or not approve new construction,” Supervisor Scott Russell said last Thursday. “That was the first time we’ve ever imposed a requirement like that.”

That condition comes at a time when the need for innovative or advanced on-site wastewater treatment systems, which for some homeowners can cost upwards of $20,000, are being discussed at different levels of government. Suffolk County is running a septic improvement program and trying to incentivize system upgrades. In Albany, legislation was recently passed allowing the five East End towns to use Community Preservation Fund resources to help residents finance new systems. Two of the five towns have already mandate upgraded septic systems for either new construction or in environmentally sensitive areas. 

The new wastewater systems reduce the output of nitrogen, which in excess is known to produce recurrent algal blooms, depleted oxygen in water bodies and other harmful effects to aquifers and surface water. 

“The time is right,” Mr. Russell said of the Town Board’s decision to require the new septic system. The project had also been scaled back to remain modest, he said. A second condition for the permit approval was that the new structure could not have a second floor. 

That the Town Board doesn’t typically deny or approve construction has mostly to do with function; building permits usually go through the Board of Trustees, Zoning Board of Appeals and Planning Board. But coastal erosion management is a different matter, the supervisor said. Appeals for those permits go to the Town Board. 

In January, the Town Trustees urged the board members to consider legislation that would require installation of innovative or alternative wastewater systems for any new construction, replacement of a dwelling or major remodeling occurring within the Trustees’ jurisdiction. 

At the time, the Trustees noted that they were regularly seeing renovations or knock-downs of smaller structures along waterways to make way for bigger projects. 

“The resurgence of new construction on the remaining vacant shorefront properties, where depth to groundwater is always an issue, should require the installation of the most technologically advanced on-site sewage treatment methods available,” they wrote in a letter to the Town Board. “Similarly, the town can no longer allow small waterfront cottages with 1930s-era cesspools to transform into 4,000-plus-square-foot mansions without a mandated upgrade in the sanitary system.”

The supervisor said the town attorney had issued an opinion to the Trustees that it was within their jurisdiction to require new septic systems for proposals that come before them. 

But the Trustees are still exploring code recommendations. 

On Monday, Trustees president Mike Domino said in an email that the Trustees are in conversation with the town attorney’s office and town engineers to set up a meeting with the Suffolk County Health Department officials “in order to determine the efficacy of the present systems and the potential for new improved systems on the horizon.”

“This information will be use by the Trustees to weigh the need for possible code changes versus dealing with applications on an individual case-by-case basis,” Mr. Domino said. 

On the South Fork, Southampton Town now requires innovative and alternative on-site wastewater treatment systems for residential projects, including new construction, in high priority areas identified in its CPF Water Quality Improvement Project Plan.

East Hampton Town mandates advanced low-nitrogen systems in all new residential and commercial buildings and in expansions of at least 50 percent. Both towns have rebate programs set up with CPF funds for eligible residents to upgrade their systems.

In the New York State Legislature last week, the Senate and Assembly both passed a bill that, if signed by the governor, would allow the five East End Towns to put CPF funds toward loans for property owners to finance the installation of advanced septic systems, which would be considered a water quality improvement project. 

Mr. Russell said that there are a couple of reasons Southold Town is not currently contemplating using CPF funds to encourage installation of alternative on-site wastewater treatment systems. One is that there is still a lot of land that needs to be preserved and using the funds to buy up the land could also prevent one more septic system from going into the ground, he said. 

“Secondly, we don’t want to see two very worthwhile goals be competing interests, land preservation and alternative treatment,” Mr. Russell said. 

Before the town considers earmarking CPF funds for something other than land preservation, the supervisor said, he’d like to see the science on exactly where the priority areas are that need the new systems. As an example, he said, he’d like to know if it would be better to take that money and put it toward a few residences or if a large institution like a school should receive it.

“I appreciate everybody’s recognition that converting over to [the new] systems is going to be an expensive proposition,” he said. “But recently, I think there’s too much of a focus on putting money in place and not enough of a focus on where to invest that money.”

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Photo caption: Kenney’s Beach in Southold where the new build is proposed. (Krysten Massa photo)