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Councilmen spar over septics: Look to Clean Water group for guidance

There was a testy exchange over septic systems between Councilmen Albert Dickson and Jim Colligan at Tuesday’s Town Board work session.

Mr. Dickson has been a strong advocate requiring homeowners who plan any expansion or renovation of their houses to prove their existing septic systems are properly functioning. If their systems failed to gain certification, they would be required to install nitrogen-reducing I/A (Innovative/Alternative) systems.

His colleagues want improvements in septics in the Town, but are hesitant about mandating that property owners pay for inspections of their systems and potentially having systems replaced. They are particularly concerned that an exemption for owners of properties of 1,500-square-feet or less could be eliminated.

It’s been three-and-a-half years since a Town Board took any major step to improve septic systems, Mr. Dickson reminded his colleagues. Mr. Colligan countered, citing several efforts underway to improve the nitrate problem, telling Mr. Dickson he resents the charge that nothing has been done to improve the Town’s water quality.

“There are just so many things you can do that are reasonable,” Mr. Colligan said. “We are taking measures,” he added, pointing to the Water Advisory Committee’s Ground and Surface Water Improvement Plan, which is beginning to be implemented, and the “fertigation” proposal that could use treated effluent from the Heights septic system to water the golf course and grounds at Goat Hill. He cited several other efforts, telling Mr. Dickson again that he resented being told no efforts at improving water quality are being done.

Supervisor Gerry Siller said he didn’t disagree with the need, but wanted time to speak with leaders of the Shelter Islanders for Clean Water about their suggestions, before voting for piecemeal septic revisions. He was to meet with members of that group Wednesday afternoon, which could be open to the public if a quorum of Board members joins the meeting.

Five steps in the current draft proposal for revisions would trigger installation of an I/A systems and the Board is unanimous in supporting four of them:

• All residential construction on previously undeveloped land

• All residential reconstruction following demolition down to the foundation, regardless of whether the building is replaced in the same footprint

• Any septic system upgrade or replacement required by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services

• Any emergency replacement upon septic system failure.

The fifth requirement for new septics splits Board members, which deals with the expansion or renovation of any new accessory structure, unless there is a certification by a licensed engineer or architect affirming that the existing septic system is properly sized, functioning and otherwise sufficient for the proposed structure. This provision is not intended to apply to external work with no impact on water use.

Without that provision, Mr. Dickson said his colleagues would fail to have sufficient impact on the Town’s nitrate problem. Deputy Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams said that provision is “too broad.” Someone doing a $10,000 project could find the cost more than doubled by implementation of that requirement, she said.

“We all want the same goal,” Mr. Siller said. “The question is how to get there,”

“I don’t mean to be rude. I’m not trying to be obnoxious,” Mr. Dickson responded. He explained he’s passionate about the need to take major steps now to deal with nitrogen affecting water quality on the Island. There’s expected to be a second public hearing before a final vote can be taken among Board members to implement revisions to its septic policies.