If your septic system looks like this, chances are you’re contributing more than your share to Suffolk County’s cesspool crisis.

County and local governments have been talking about the necessity of reducing nitrogen leaching from cesspools on Eastern Long Island for several years, but this summer, they’re starting to put their money behind the talk.

As of July 3, Suffolk County began offering grants of up to $10,000 to homeowners to install new nitrogen-reducing wastewater systems, along with low interest loans, while East Hampton Town is crafting the East End’s first law creating a rebate program, which can be used in addition to the county grant, using Community Preservation Fund money approved by voters for water quality improvement last November.

The East Hampton Town Board will hold its second public hearing on the rebate program at their 6:30 p.m. meeting Aug. 3.

Southampton Town also has a program in the works, which would give grants of up to $15,000 to income-eligible homeowners  in designated areas. A public hearing on Southampton’s proposal will be held on Aug. 8 at 1 p.m. More details are online here.

Both Southampton and Riverhead town boards have voted to waive land management and building department fees for the upgraded systems.

Both East Hampton and Southampton towns are also drafting new local laws requiring nitrogen-reducing septic systems on new construction. East Hampton’s proposal would require it on all new construction, while Southampton’s proposal would require it on new construction, or expansion of more than 25 percent, on properties in the two-year sub-watershed areas, meaning the groundwater there takes two years or less to reach surface waters.

The Southampton Town Board adopted the new construction requirement in a unanimous vote July 25.

The East Hampton Town Board will hold its second public hearing on the new construction requirement at their Aug. 3 meeting.

If adopted, East Hampton’s rebate program would go into effect immediately, while the upgrade requirement for new construction would not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2018, and would not apply to projects that have already received Suffolk County Health Department approval for new conventional septic systems.

Suffolk County announced July 11 that 165 homeowners had already applied for the county program and nine had been approved in just the first eight days.

In order to receive the county grant, the house whose septic system is being upgraded must be the homeowner’s primary, year-round residence and it must be a single-family home. The property owner’s income must be less than $300,000 a year for the full grant, or $500,000 a year for half of the grant. Preferential consideration is being given to properties in environmentally sensitive areas, and failing systems that have required two or more pump-outs in the past year.

The Suffolk County Septic Improvement Program falls under County Executive Bellone’s 2014 Reclaim Our Water initiative, which includes $383 million in federal and state aid for sewer infrastructure expansion. The county has $2 million available for the rebate program each year through 2021 through its Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund.

Nitrogen-reducing systems, which are just now beginning to be approved for use in Suffolk County, typically cost between $15,000 and $20,000. The county is also making an additional $1,000 in grant money available for residents who want to install optional pressurized shallow drainfields, used to improve distribution of wastewater from the systems.

Homeowners may also qualify to finance the remaining cost of the systems over 15 years at a 3 percent fixed interest rate.

A typical new conventional septic system would cost about $8,000.

Both residential and commercial property owners would be eligible for East Hampton’s rebate program, and the work does not have to be done on a primary home. Residential property owners must meet the Basic STAR property tax exemption income eligibility requirements that they make less than $500,000 per year, though they do not have to be participants in the STAR credit program.

East Hampton’s law allows the town board to set the amounts of the rebate by resolution, with a current cap of $16,000 for property owners whose houses are in water protection districts, and for up to $10,000 or 75 percent of the cost  of the project for property owners whose houses are not in water protection districts. These rebates could be used in conjunction with the county program, and the total of both the county and town grant and rebate will not be more than the cost of the project.

“This is a really exciting and cutting edge program,” said East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell after the first public hearing on the two local laws July 11.  “Board members worked hard on this for the past year-and-a-half and we’re really pleased to get it to this point.”

Mr. Cantwell added at the board’s July 18 work session that he and Councilman Fred Overton will no longer be on the board in January of 2018, but he hopes members who are still on the board continue to uphold the intent of requiring advanced septic systems on new construction once the law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2018.

“Our town, the first in Suffolk County, is going to require the use of low nitrogen systems. The county has not yet taken that step. We need to coordinate with the county on that or at least try to,” said Mr. Cantwell. “The town may have to, at some time, take a stand and put a stake in the ground. I’m hoping the county will do the right thing and require this countywide.”

For more information on applying for the county grant program, go to www.reclaimourwater.info, email septicdemo@suffolkcountyny.gov, or call the Suffolk County Department of Health Services at 631.852.5811.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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