Sylvester Manor Breaks Ground on New Green Wastewater Treatment System

A rendering of the plan for a clean water facility at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island.
A rendering of the plan for a clean water facility at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island.
A rendering of the plan for a clean water facility at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island.

By Douglas Feiden

Okay, hold your breath: It’s called a “Non-Proprietary Vegetated Gravel Recirculating Constructed Wetland Alternative Onsite Wastewater Treatment System.”

Yes, that really is the formal name for the new system designed to create a greener, cleaner, safer and healthier environment at the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm on Shelter Island.

“Now, that’s a real mouthful,” acknowledged project director Sara Gordon, who heads planning and conservation at the manor. “So call it a clean water system, because that’s exactly what it is.”

With high hopes, big dreams and great fanfare, a baker’s dozen of elected officials, environmentalists, local leaders and manor brass broke ground on Friday, September 23, for what they dubbed the “first non-proprietary system of its kind in Suffolk County.”

That means it conforms to standards that are already in the public domain or widely licensed so that no single private manufacturer can ever own the rights, unilaterally hike the price, restrict access or register and protect it as an exclusive trademark or brand.

But what exactly is it? What does it do? And why does it matter?

It captures and treats wastewater, which it recirculates through vegetated filters planted below and within an artificially constructed wetland, which doubles as a garden. The effluent is treated in its passage through the wetland, where it is filtered and recirculated through gravel, roots and plantings before it’s ultimately discharged into the soil and absorbed.

The wastewater treatment facility, which is expected to come on line by April 2017, will be roughly 14 feet by 30 feet in dimensions, or 420-square feet, and will be buried about 4.5 feet underground, according to Natural Systems Utilities, the New Jersey-based firm that will develop and build it.

It will treat sewage from temporary facilities to be built alongside it that will provide restrooms for visitors and for the resident seasonal farm staff, who will also be able to access new showers and laundry and kitchen facilities.

“That’s another benefit,” said Jo-Ann Robotti, executive director of Sylvester Manor. “We’re providing public restrooms, and there aren’t a lot of them on Shelter Island.”

In turn, that will take pressure off the 1737 manor house, the farm’s centerpiece, where the bathrooms will now be mostly off- limits to guests. More broadly, it will curb wastewater impacts throughout the grounds of the historic 243-acre plantation.

Meanwhile, a garden blossoming with switchgrass, false blue indigo, butterfly weed, evening primrose and northern sea oats will be planted atop the subterranean wastewater treatment facility.

“It will be a 21st-century garden that aligns with what we consider to be the oldest formal garden in America,” said Ms. Gordon, pointing to the famed Boxwood Allee that connects the two sites. “It is our link from the past to the present to the future.”

A public-private partnership between Suffolk County and Sylvester Manor, the roughly $400,000 project has been funded with a combined $289,000 from Suffolk County and New york State, and private contributions from the manor’s board members, along with foundation grants and other donations, are expected to make up the difference.

“This will be a beacon to others to reduce nitrogen and to keep our groundwater and surface water clean,” said Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. “It will be the wave of the future, and I look forward to the day when we don’t hold a press conference to announce these things because everybody is doing it.”

Mr. Thiele helped direct $125,000 of New York State Community Capital Assistance Program funds to Sylvester Manor, of which $80,000 will be used for the advanced treatment system.

Its goals are ambitious: Reduce nitrogen discharges to the manor’s fragile groundwater resources by 90 percent. Prove that a simple sewage treatment system using natural processes to excise contaminants can be economical, efficient and require low maintenance. And use the project for educational purposes to teach kids to be vigilant and responsible stewards of local waters.

“Innovative wastewater treatment systems that reduce the level of nitrogen in our waters are critical to the restoration and preservation of our natural resources,” said Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming.