Sag Harbor Village Caught in Middle on Septic Laws

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By Stephen J. Kotz

With both East Hampton and Southampton towns passing similar, but nonetheless different, laws earlier this year mandating the use of innovative wastewater systems in some new construction and major renovation projects, members of the Sag Harbor Harbor Committee want the village to consider following suit.

The towns took action as worries about declining water quality became widespread. They were spurred on after the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, which oversees the installation of wastewater treatment systems, announced last year that it would begin to allow modern systems, which remove substantially more nitrogen and other pollutants from effluent than the traditional septic and cesspool systems employed across Long Island.

Referendums approved by voters in both towns a year ago provided a funding source by allowing the towns to tap into a portion of revenue from their Community Preservation Funds to help homeowners cover the costs of replacing aging septic systems.

The problem, according to John Shaka, the chairman of the Harbor Committee, and John Parker, one of its members, is that the village is exempt from the new, stricter town laws.

“I live on the East Hampton side of the village,” said Mr. Shaka. As an East Hampton Town resident, “I’d be eligible for a septic rebate, but I wouldn’t be required to install one of the new systems.”

The village’s building inspector, Tom Preiato, agreed. He said anyone in the village who wants to build a new house or undertake a substantial expansion has to apply to Suffolk County for a wastewater treatment system permit. “The new systems are not required by the county,” he said. “The county allows them, but does not require them.”

In East Hampton Town, a law that goes into effect on January 1 will require all new construction and substantial expansion projects anywhere in town to use one of the new county-approved systems. A similar law in Southampton Town, which went into effect in September, requires the new systems for new construction and substantial expansion in “high priority” areas, defined as those where it takes up to two years for groundwater to reach the bay or other surface waters.

The towns also have adopted slightly different rebate programs. According to East Hampton Town’s director of natural resources, Kim Shaw, homeowners can apply for a rebate of up to $16,000 based on their income. Those installing the systems in “waterfront protection areas” that are close to bays and harbors will be eligible to receive up to 100 percent of the cost of a new system up to that $16,000 threshold. Those living elsewhere in town would qualify for up to 75 percent of the cost up to that limit.

In Southampton Town, residents who earn $300,000 or less a year can qualify for up to $15,000 in rebates, while those earning up to $500,000 qualify for 50 percent, while those making more than that amount would have to pay for their own systems. Although the town is targeting high priority areas, rebates will be available to those living elsewhere if funding is available, said Councilman John Bouvier, who added “I expect we will expand our law to other priority areas soon.”

On top of that, homeowners can apply for county grants of up to $10,000, he said.

This week, Mayor Sandra Schroeder, while acknowledging that protecting water quality “is a big concern for me,” said the village is not ready to introduce its own law. “We are in two towns,” she said. “I don’t want to have a law that matches one town law but not the other.”

Mr. Parker said the Harbor Committee is only trying to help the village sort its way through the thicket of conflicting legislation. “We are just trying to clarify the situation,” he said. The village could adopt a law that covered all of it, similar to the East Hampton law, it could adopt one that focused on high-priority areas, which includes most of the village, like the Southampton law, or it could adopt a law that adopts the East Hampton requirements on that side of the village and the Southampton requirements on that side, he said.

Meanwhile, town officials say their programs are off to good starts. “They are coming in slowly but surely,” said Ms. Shaw, pointing out that the program remains voluntary until the new year. She said the managers of the Whalebone Village affordable apartments and St. Luke’s Lutheran Church senior housing, as well as Ashawagh Hall in Springs, have inquired about installing new wastewater systems.

In Southampton Town, Mr. Bouvier said about 30 permits for new systems had already been issued “and there’s a little over 100 in the pipeline.”

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