Reflecting on the sewer vote
GREAT RIVER—It’s been a little over a week since Great River residents rejected what could be described as a once-in-a-generation opportunity. The Connetquot River Sewer Project, which was voted down, 304 (56.93 percent) to 230 (43.07 percent), would have connected over 450 homes along the six-mile-long river to an updated sewer system at a cost of $26.4 million.
While the project would have been 100 percent funded by federal and state grants, the annual charge to homes for yearly operation and maintenance was projected to cost $660, according to the project’s website, which has since been taken down. Annual debt to residential homes would have cost an additional $119 on average.
Two other communities in Suffolk County overwhelmingly approved similar projects.
Mastic voted to sewer nearly 2,770 homes and businesses along the Forge River, using $191.3 million in grant funding. This particular project includes a commercial corridor along Montauk Highway and construction of a new sewage treatment plant at Brookhaven Calabro Airport, according to reports.
Residents in the Town of Babylon also voted in favor of their respective project, which will use $140.2 million in grant money to connect over 2,800 homes located around the Carlls River to sewers.
The federal and state grants were awarded to help repair communities negatively impacted by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and strengthen the South Shore’s wetlands, which, when healthy, act as sponges against rising water levels caused by storm surges.
Great River residents would have paid more per year than the other two communities due to higher property values, according to reports, which also say that an anonymous flyer was passed around to Great River residents, saying the annual cost was only an estimate and would increase every year.
Suffolk County Deputy Executive Peter Scully, a veteran state environmental official, said that excess nutrients, and nitrogen in particular, have been identified as the single most important factor in the deterioration of water quality in local bays.
Scully went on to cite that 70 percent of the nitrogen entering the Great South Bay comes from cesspools and septic tanks. Connecting parcels to a sewer system, he said, eliminates the need for cesspools and septic tanks, and helps prevent nitrogen from entering the water.
Scully said it’s not clear whether the grant funding that had been allotted for the proposal could be repurposed for a different project.
“The county plans to consult with the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery and other involved funding agencies to clarify whether the funding can be repurposed, and what flexibility and constraints may exist relative to alternative uses of funding,” he noted via email.
The project’s cost didn’t seem to be the only factor in rejecting the proposal. Numerous experts on the sewer installation say residents expressed concern about the electric-powered pumps that would have been installed at every home as part of the project.
Great River resident Mark Businski said he and his wife voted against the project for this very reason. Businski, a boater and scoutmaster, said he would gladly pay to help improve the Great South Bay, but called the proposed sewer system a “Band-Aid of an approach” that depends on individual pumps for each home.
Businski also expressed concern that Patchogue Village is the only local community currently utilizing this sewer system.
Patchogue Village Mayor Paul Pontieri, who spoke in favor of the proposed project at multiple community meetings in Great River, called the proposal a “great system.” Patchogue Village currently has between 65 and 70 units, mostly for restaurants, according to the mayor. Patchogue Village will also be receiving over 500 additional units for homes – separate from the recent referendum.
James Bertsch, a Sayville resident who recently wrote a piece for this publication in support of the sewer project, said Long Island’s No. 1 industry is tourism, specifically along the ocean and bays. “I was disappointed to see Great River residents vote down sewers,” he said. “The quality of life and environmental benefits of sewers are well understood.”
Bertsch said he hopes to see sewers installed in Oakdale, as well as Bayport, Blue Point and the Greater Sayville area. He expounded on the severity of the situation by adding that at certain times in the day, Oakdale residents are unable to run their dishwaters or do laundry.
Islip Town councilman and Great River resident Jim O’Connor endorsed the project, along with numerous other organizations, including the Nature Conservancy, Save the Great South Bay, and the Long Island Clean Water Partnership.
“When we see the pollution and red tides in places like the Florida Gulf Coast, we realize that’s not the future we want,” the councilman wrote in a mailer to Great River residents who were scheduled to vote on the proposal. “The opportunity to connect to sewers will protect our water quality and improve property values.”
Since the project was voted down, O’Connor said that “at the end of the day” elected officials respect the residents’ decision and must decide how to move forward regarding the issue at hand.
Kevin McDonald, a regional member of the Nature Conservancy, echoed these statements, but said that he heard some “contradictory statements” while speaking to residents about the proposal.
McDonald said many residents appeared open to a 1970s-style sewer system, which, he said, would have cost more. When they got the specifics about the low-pressure system with individual pumps being proposed, McDonald said residents became concerned about what would happen to the system in the event of a power outage.
McDonald suggested if residents were concerned about a power outage, they could purchase a house generator for $1,700. This, he said, would still be cheaper than paying for an old-fashioned sewer system that he believes many residents were okay with in the early stages.
McDonald also cited what he sees as evidence of the system’s success in Patchogue. “This is what change looks like,” he said. “But the issue isn’t going away. Nitrogen in the water needs to be addressed.”
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