Editorial: Saving the Bays

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The Sag Harbor Village Board delayed a vote last week on its proposal to require innovative-alternative or “I/A” on-site septic systems that actively reduce nitrogen discharge for all new residential construction. The proposal also would require an I/A system whenever existing conventional septic systems must be replaced.

Sag Harbor is the last South Fork municipality to consider requiring I/A systems. Southampton Town and Village are already on board. East Hampton Town is too, and East Hampton Village joined the crowd this winter. It’s time for Sag Harbor to get on board, too.

Village Attorney Elizabeth Vail said at the February 12 Village Board meeting the village still needed “referrals” from two adjacent jurisdictions, the towns of East Hampton and Southampton, before it can vote to adopt the proposal. Getting the nod from neighboring towns is a routine step just to make sure there are no surprise problems that could cause headaches down the road.

While they wait, village officials meanwhile have been weighing suggestions made during the public hearing process for a few tweaks, including expanding the proposed code amendment to cover commercial properties as well and exempt properties where there is access to a municipal sewer line, which is generally the case for all properties in the central commercial district.

Another village law on the books now requires such properties to connect to the sewer system. Requiring them to install independent, on-site septic systems therefore doesn’t make a lot of sense. But Harbor Committee member John Parker is right to urge the village to be careful about exemptions to the I/A law that might encourage property owners to delay installing an I/A upgrade in the hope that someday a new sewer line will reach them.

The village’s sewage treatment plant is a well-run, state-of-the-art system with excess capacity. Village Trustee Aidan Corish, who is just getting started on the long, slow process of developing an expansion plan for the plant’s network of mains, calls the plant “the gold standard” for sewage treatment, achieving even higher levels of nitrogen-reduction than I/A systems.

In a waterfront community like Sag Harbor, expansion of the wastewater treatment plant is truly is “the way to go,” as resident Anthony Vermandois told the village board as it continued its hearing on the I/A proposal last week. “It’s better to pay more in taxes” as a sewer district property owner, he said, “than to install an I/A system.”

But the sewer system won’t be expanded for years and, even then, it will only reach parts of the village along its waterfront, where groundwater pollution from old septic systems and cesspools sitting in groundwater is the greatest threat to the Peconic Bay system. Meanwhile, Sag Harbor must go all in for I/A systems, which will go a long way toward improving and safeguarding the environmental health of local waters, especially with town, county and state grant money available to many property owners that helps defray the cost of this necessary improvement.

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