Equal Time: Protecting water quality has been town’s priority

In an op-ed appearing on these pages last week, a Democratic Party candidate for the town board, Robert Hanlon, stated that the time to protect water quality is now. Actually, the issue of protecting water quality isn’t new. In fact, it has been an urgent priority for many years. Reviewing past accomplishments, current efforts and future goals, it is clear that the Town Board has a deep commitment to protecting our groundwater and our fragile water bodies.

When the voters of Southold approved the extension of the Community Preservation Fund a few years ago, a new provision allowed towns to use up to 20% of the revenue to address septic impacts on the water supply. We have, however, taken a different approach. Our strategy for reducing the impacts of septic systems on water quality is simple: stop septic systems from being constructed in the first place.

By dedicating all of our revenue to preservation efforts, we have had great success. Currently, we preserve 13 acres for every 1 acre developed, a 94% preservation rate. In areas specifically targeted for preservation, our residential and agricultural zones, we have protected 38 acres for every 1 acre developed. This year alone, we are purchasing, or have purchased, about 235 acres with another 103 acres in the pipeline.

By working with partners at the federal, state and county level, we have been able to leverage our resources, which has expanded our preservation efforts even further. In addition, with creativity and innovative approaches, we have achieved results few others could, like the preservation of Island’s End Golf Course — the only public golf course on the North Fork. We have also assembled several preserved properties that link the Peconic Bay to the Long Island Sound in one continuous trail. We have expanded town preserves by buying property outright and purchased the development rights of many farms. With strong fiscal management, our land preservation program remains well-funded and active, despite the challenges of rising real estate values.

Protection of our farmland, our woodlands and our preserves by restricting or eliminating development not only protects our water quality by eliminating septic systems, it achieves our community’s overarching goals of supporting agriculture, protecting our open spaces and preserving our ecosystems. Southold’s record of success is unmatched, and that is something the whole community should be proud of.

We continue to work with the Suffolk County Department of Health to update its code to continue to evaluate and expand the use of I/A septic systems. In addition to these being required by the trustees, they are also required on all new subdivisions. We look forward to implementing them on commercial properties through the site plan process as soon as the Department of Health amends the county code to permit them. We have also had a prominent role in getting that agency to restrict or remove grandfathering provisions for septic systems in their new code. We also regularly participate in Department of Health meetings as it updates its sanitary code.

Protecting our surface waters is equally important. Installation and upgrades to drainage systems, closing off outfall pipes and several drainage projects are just some of our efforts to stop discharge from entering our creeks and bays. All new development plans are reviewed to ensure compliance with the stormwater drainage code. This code, which I helped draft and adopt, requires all stormwater to stay onsite and prohibits discharge into our roadways, stopping it from potentially running into our creeks and bays. Our capital budget earmarks $250,000 for stormwater mitigation projects and we are securing over $500,000 in grants this year alone to help with our efforts.

We created a Shellfish Advisory Committee which collects and tests water samples from our creeks and bays to help us focus our resources on areas of critical need. We also work with other East End villages and towns, through the Peconic Estuary Program, to develop regional solutions to protecting our bays, creeks and estuaries. Water quality is a regional challenge that requires regional solutions.

Protecting water quality should be everyone’s top priority. Judging by the record we have developed, I would say the Southold Town Board knows how important this is and has known, for years.

Mr. Russell is Southold Town supervisor.