New Septic Systems Attract Critics

A low-nitrogen septic system that was installed in Jamesport. Justin Jobin photo

Residents in Southampton Town will now be able to access higher rebates for installing modern, low-nitrogen septic systems. North Haven Village is on the cusp of introducing a law mirroring Southampton Town’s septic regulations. And the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, buoyed by additional funding from New York State, has beefed up resources to help interested homeowners.

And even as these developments propel the installation of low-nitrogen septic systems forward on the South Fork, the technology itself — touted as a way to protect the bays from nitrogen pollution — has attracted critics.

“Right now I think everyone is jumping into a system that nobody is understanding really well,” Sag Harbor architect James Merrell said this week.

Mr. Merrell recently spoke up at a North Haven Village Board meeting to say there are some drawbacks to the systems, which have been widely billed as one of the solutions to the water quality issues the South Fork is facing. He questioned whether houses that are not lived in full-time are suited to this type of new septic system, and said they are more expensive and generally larger in size than traditional septic systems.

Indeed, according to the National Environmental Sciences Center, the bacteria that run the system need a consistent source of carbon-based material — such as human waste — or else they fall into a dormant state or die off and need to be jump-started or replenished.

“I think it’s worth waiting and seeing the results that come in,” Mr. Merrell said. “If it’s positive, great. If not, then we can save people a lot of headaches. Anytime there’s an area that has not adopted it yet, it has the ability to watch for a year or two and see if the headaches are worth it for homeowners. It’s a learning curve for everybody.”

To help offset the cost, the Southampton Town Board voted Tuesday to up the maximum rebate for property owners to install new, low-nitrogen septic systems from $15,000 to $20,000. The board also adjusted the rules governing who’s eligible to receive them, capping the maximum income of a qualifying household at $1 million, whereas previously it was $500,000. Those earning up to between $500,000 and $1 million can get grants covering up to 25 percent of the cost of a new septic system, while residents earning below that threshold can still get up to 100 percent.

North Haven Village Mayor Jeff Sander confirmed Wednesday that as early as September, the village may adopt regulations similar to what Southampton Town has done. Southampton currently requires the systems to be installed in high-priority areas, either where it takes up to two years for septic waste to reach the groundwater or surface waters or where the town’s Conservation Board has otherwise mandated them.

Bridgehampton attorney Brian DeSesa has some Sag Harbor clients with waterfront houses who are voluntarily including low-nitrogen septic systems in their renovation projects. Sag Harbor Village does not have a law mandating them.

“While I think the idea in theory is good, I think [East Hampton and Southampton] rushed to implement it,” Mr. DeSesa said this week. “It doesn’t seem like there’s enough known about them on how they function in resort areas or second-home markets. But everybody that’s going before the Harbor Committee is including them now because they’re looking for them even though it’s not a requirement.”

Indeed, Sag Harbor’s Harbor Committee wrote to the village’s Board of Trustees in January with a request to begin looking at new septic system legislation for the village.

Justin Jobin, an environmental project coordinator with the Suffolk County Department of Health Services (SCDOHS), said there haven’t been any issues with seasonal properties.

“Each system has its advantages and disadvantages,” he said. “Barnstable, Massachusetts, did a similar study and found that there’s not much difference” in system effectiveness “between year-round and seasonal properties. What we see on Long Island is if it’s getting a glut of carbon relatively often enough, on weekends or monthly, it’s enough.”

He likened the new septic systems to household appliances or utilities that need periodic maintenance, as opposed to what he called “old set-and-forget” septic systems.

“Essentially, it’s been a wait-and-see approach for the last 40 years and what we’re seeing is the degradation of water quality, fish kills and die-off of shellfish, so I don’t think a wait-and-see approach is too effective,” Mr. Jobin said. “These systems remove a lot of organic matter and will be less likely to clog. If something goes, you’re replacing a component. You’re not digging up your entire backyard. They have a benefit to the homeowner and collectively if you have a lot of these systems going in, you have a benefit to the ecosystem.”

Deputy Suffolk County Executive Peter Scully said Tuesday the SCDOHS has added a staff member to handle the influx of interest in the new septic systems and give out an additional $10 million in state funding the county has received.

Mr. Jobin provided data showing Southampton Town has the second-highest number of county permits issued for the new septic systems, at 54, after Brookhaven’s 57. East Hampton is next on the list with 32 permits. Southold has 11, Shelter Island seven and Riverhead three.

In East Hampton Town, environmental analyst Mellissa Winslow said the rebate program “is going really well,” and said the systems that were installed are functioning “well below” the county-mandated limit of 19 milligrams of nitrogen per liter of effluent processed. While the seasonal house concerns had been raised, she pointed out that people often have property managers who can come and maintain the septic systems in their absence. “I think these are still the best way to go to combat the nitrogen problem out here. The septic systems are really the source,” Ms. Winslow said.