Pictured Above: The installation of a FujiClean IA system at a home in Flanders in 2022

The Republican majority in the Suffolk County Legislature refused to take action on proposed public referenda to create an eighth of a penny sales tax to fund new wastewater systems and to consolidate the county’s 27 sewer districts on July 25, as the Aug. 4 deadline to get the referenda on the November ballot looms.

Many of the 10 legislators who blocked the votes said they believe more of the money raised through the new sales tax should be allocated toward sewers, and that they wanted more say in the drafting of the plan. As drafted, 75 percent of the money raised by the tax would be used to fund nitrogen-reducing onsite septic systems, while 25 percent would be used for sewers.

The legislature voted to “recess” public hearings on both initiatives on July 25, despite hearing several hours of testimony from residents, labor advocates and environmentalists who urged legislators to close the hearings and vote to put the referenda on the ballot for the voters to decide.

It took six years of lobbying the New York State Legislature to get then enabling legislation to allow these referenda to get to this point, said Nature Conservancy Policy Advisor Kevin McDonald, who has been at the forefront of the effort to get these proposals on the ballot. He added that, if the county is unable to put up the ballot measures this fall, he’s not confident the State Legislature will allow them to try again.

If these two measures were passed by voters, “it would be the two most significant policy decisions that Suffolk County will have ever done, that will have altered the fate of its water resources for hundreds of years in the future,” he added.

Holding the vote this November would also allow the county to leverage the money raised to be used as a local match for grant funding through two very large pots of money that are just about to be released by the state and federal government — the state’s $4 billion Environmental Bond Act, passed overwhelmingly by New York voters in a a ballot referendum last year, and the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill.

“I implore you to vote positively,” said Jaime Franchi of the Long Island Contractor’s Association, echoing the opinion of many who spoke. “We need to be positioned early (for this grant funding). Suffolk County will lose the opportunity to access federal dollars by delaying the referendum.”

Dr. Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook University’s Center for Clean Water Technology told the legislature that the county’s plan is “based on the best available, up-to-date science, and is built on scientific consensus,” particularly the county’s 2020 Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan, which details priority actions necessary to clean up the county’s groundwater from decades of reliance on cesspools.

He added that both sewers and on-site advanced septic systems, known as IA systems, are effective tools to address the overload of nitrogen in the groundwater, which flows to surface waters, where it feeds harmful algae blooms that damage fisheries and weakens the resiliency of salt marshes.

He said IA systems generally had a clear advantage of costing an average of $25,000 per house, while it “costs over $100,000 per home to connect each home to a sewer.”

“It’s entirely site-specific,” he said. “In certain downtown areas that already have a sewage treatment plant, it makes more sense to make further connections.”

Southampton Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni and the Peconic County flag.

Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni came to the podium with a photo of the Peconic County flag, which decades ago served as a rallying cry for the five East End towns to secede from Suffolk County. Only two of the 18 Suffolk County legislators represent the five East End towns, because the seats are apportioned due to population. He said that 69 percent of the voters on the East End, and 64 percent of voters countywide, said yes to the Environmental Bond Act ballot referendum last November.

“We have no viable option for replacement of drinking water on Long Island,” he said. “I’m also here because of the collapse of the Peconic Bay scallops and the collapse of clams in the Great South Bay. Put this out to the voters, as is appropriate.”

“In the Town of Southampton, we put in 160 to 200 IA systems a year, and we’re working on sewer districts in Sag Harbor, Westhampton Beach, Southampton Village, Hampton Bays and Riverside,” he added. “Your constituents want this. Do not be the ones to stand in the way of democracy.”

“I didn’t come up with the 75/25 formula, but if 75 percent is for individual homeowners, do the math. Most of the homes that have cesspools in Suffolk County are not on the East End. Most of the homes are not on the East End. They’re on the west end,” said Legislator Al Krupski, who represents the North Fork and part of eastern Brookhaven Town.

Mr. Krupski, along with his fellow legislators who support the referendum, was wearing a lapel pin shaped like a blue drop of water to demonstrate his commitment.

“It’s well demonstrated the cost of hooking up sewers,” he said, adding that the county recently spent $10 million to hook up 238 Patchogue homeowners to sewers. “We have to consider what we’re doing here as far as the long-term costs.”

“What we’re talking about in Mastic Beach is lawns that are wet with effluent and stink, that the kids are walking on,” said Maura Sperry, the former mayor of Mastic Beach. “We’re not going to get sewers in the conservation area in Mastic Beach. We depend on IA systems. A new sewer plan is going to revitalize Mastic Beach’s downtown, but both are super-important. For you guys to be complaining about IA or sewers — we need all of this. It’s a public health crisis where I live.”

“This effluent situation is a slow motion disaster that has been going on a long time,” said East Marion resident Anne Murray, representing the North Fork Environmental Council. “I haven’t heard one good argument why this hasn’t been put on the ballot… What are you afraid of? Why is there a big fight between IA and sewers?”

“Both IA and sewers are important, but sewers are the priority, without question,” said Legislator Nick Caracappa, who voted with the majority. “The science and the data, I understand it better than most of you. You can clammer all you want. With this resolution as it stands right now, it stockpiles hundreds of millions of dollars to wait for people to stand up and apply for IA systems…. We need to change the language so it doesn’t handcuff us. We were left out of this equation. We were not on the committee or the consensus panel. We’d be stockpiling money that will not be used for years, if at all, while people are sitting around waiting for sewers.”

Legislator Bridget Fleming, who represents the South Fork, said she doesn’t understand why the majority is blocking this move now after years of bipartisan agreement on water quality initiatives. She added that money from the county’s Water Quality Protection and Restoration Program, which would also be extended by 30 years if the referendum passes, “can be used for sewer systems only.”

“A balance has been struck,” she said. “These objections are not based in reality. Implementation relies on the use of two funding sources.”

“I care about the working men and women of this county,” said Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey, who voted to recess the motion, delaying the decision. “I commit to find a solution…. Everybody that developed the (Subwatersheds) plan said priority number one is sewers on the South Shore of Long Island. That would have the biggest impact on the environment and putting people to work.”

“Do you think you’re not going to get the political tar beaten out of you in the next 100 days?” asked John Turner of the Seatuck Environmental Association of the legislators who voted to recess. “I don’t know why you’d want to do that.”

As the clock ticks on the referendum, Dr. Gobler pointed out that he’s concerned the earth’s ecosystems are near a tipping point from which it will be very difficult for them to recover.

“It’s imperative now because of the rate at which ecosystems are depleting,” he said. “Look outside. Climate change is not slowing down. We need to move now to make our ecosystems as healthy as possible. We’re not going to halt the climate change train, which is coming at us full force, but we can reduce nitrogen loads, which lets the salt marshes and sea grass grow back. We need to take action on what we can control.”

“This is not shocking. It’s the year 2023 and we need to treat our sewage,” said Citizens Campaign for the Environment Executive Director Adrienne Esposito. “I don’t know why we have public hearings if we all trundle up here and 95 percent of us are for this and you vote against it anyway.”

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please prove you're human: