Southampton Village Residents Not Sold On Development Aspect Of Proposed Sewer District

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Southampton Village officials are continuing the discussion of a proposed sewer system to serve the business district, but some local residents say they are not quite sold on the increased density and commercial development it is expected to bring.

Proponents, including Mayor Mark Epley, have said the goal of putting in a sewer district would be to revitalize Lake Agawam, which is polluted at least in part by nearby septic systems, but also to install sewers and a treatment plant to allow more restaurants and residential units to be developed in the village center. Suffolk County rarely allows any expansion because of the amount of wastewater that expansion would produce, which can’t be supported by septic systems now in place.

The new sewers would target the primary business district, along Main Street and Jobs Lane, and also encompass Windmill Lane, Nugent Street and some of Hill Street. In addition to permitting expanded uses on Main Street and Jobs Lane, a key goal is to create more opportunity for development along Windmill Lane and Nugent Street—in essence expanding the existing shopping district to include those areas, with retailers and restaurants.

Some residents told village officials last Thursday night, December 3, that they would prefer that the village move forward with a sewer plan that brings environmental benefits—but not more development.

“I’m not sure I want to encourage more growth in the village, in the perspective of more properties, more restaurants,” village resident Bruce Bockmann said at a meeting of the Village Planning Commission, where Melville-based H2M Architects and Engineers presented its final proposal for the sewer district.

“I find it almost impossible to use the village during the months from June to August,” Mr. Bockmann added. “Take that out of your equation.”

The proposal calls for the creation of a $33 million sewer system, slated to be up and running by 2020. The newly created sewer district would encompass the entire village, but the planned sewer system would only serve the downtown business district, using a “hybrid” collection system consisting of gravity sewers and low-pressure pumps. The treatment plant would be located in a building behind the Southampton Village Police Department headquarters on Windmill Lane.

The village would borrow money through a bond issue to pay the initial costs of installing the system, and a tax would be imposed on the entire village to repay it over time. Properties served by the new sewers would pay a significantly larger portion of the initial cost through tax bills. For instance, retail properties and restaurants in the portion of the village served by the new sewers would pay an average of $7,600 in taxes each year toward the cost of the system, while retailers and restaurants not in the new system’s service area would only pay an average of about $110.

No purely residential properties would be included in the area served by the new sewers. However, since the sewer district includes the entire village, residential properties would still be assessed a new tax to help pay for the system in the business district. The average residential property owner’s bill would be less than $100 a year.

Those commercial properties connected to the new sewers also would pay an annual “sewer rent” to cover the cost of operating and maintaining the system, and treating the waste. The sewer rent, which would be included in the property owners’ annual property tax bills, would be determined by daily use, as well by how the village chooses to manage the system—it can either create its own sewage department, with a superintendent and staff, or it can contract that service out, which would be cheaper.

With the help of 44 pump stations installed throughout the village, all of the wastewater would be transported to a treatment plant enclosed mostly underground. The building’s design would match that of the police headquarters and include odor control and noise mitigation, officials have said.

The plant would process about 200,000 gallons of wastewater per day. The water would then be filtered into a leaching area spanning the rear of nearly all the properties on Windmill Lane before seeping into the ground, where it would go through more natural purification processes before making its way to Lake Agawam.

Mayor Epley said this week that officials have not discussed whether there would be a tax offset for properties located near the treatment plant and leaching field to mitigate the possible impact on property values.

The amount it would cost for each property to connect to the sewer system is still in question, according to Mr. Epley—but he said the fee would be included in the overall cost of the installation that the bond and a grant would cover, which the village hopes to supplement with $10 million in public grants. As a result, the final cost to affected property owners would all be via tax bills, not individual connection fees as well. Taxes and “sewer rents” would decrease if the village gets the grants.

“The debatable point is, what is the percentage of breakdown of that cost, and how is that shared?” the mayor said, referring to how much of the $33 million will have to go toward connecting individual users.

Officials have not yet determined whether establishing a sewer district is a matter that would have to be approved via a public referendum.

They also have not yet determined if it will be mandatory for property owners within the designated service area to connect. “Personally, I would lean toward that, but I’m not sure from a legal standpoint that we can mandate that,” Mr. Epley said. “But if the hookup fee is built into the overall bond cost, why wouldn’t I hook up my building?”

With the proposal now finalized, the Planning Commission, at its next meeting on Thursday, January 7, will prepare to send its recommendations to the Village Board, which ultimately has to approve the proposal. An environmental review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act is currently being prepared by Woodbury-based firm Cameron Engineering & Associates.

Because there are no residential properties within the proposed sewer service area, residents have argued that they should not have to help subsidize the sewer district with their property taxes. Village officials have stressed, however, that a new sewer system in the business district would benefit everyone, because, beyond environmental benefits, it would make it possible to bring in more merchants, thus increasing the overall tax base for the village.

Planning Commission Chairman Paul Travis also noted at last Thursday’s meeting that the sewer district is part of an overall master plan to improve the business district, which he referred to as the village center. That plan was presented in 2008 and envisioned new development along Windmill Lane and Nugent Street that would make them more like Main Street and Jobs Lane. The sewer district, Mr. Travis explained, is one component of the master plan that would allow for that development to happen.

The chairman also said that in order for the village to pursue $10 million in grants to help pay for the project, there needs to be a plan that includes more than simply an immediate environmental benefit. “The reality of public grants is … they have a limited pot of money, and they want to make sure you’re not coming back to them in five years for another grant,” Mr. Travis said.

“What we’re talking about is allowing growth of different activities,” Mr. Travis added. “There were several hundred people living in the village center 10, 20, 30 years ago. That’s how the businesses survived.”

Some residents brought up the Village of Patchogue, which in the last decade has used a sewer district to successfully revitalize its Main Street and surrounding areas. But Michael White pointed to a six-story building recently constructed there that includes a mix of retail and housing, saying that he did not want to see similar development in Southampton. Mr. Travis assured him that zoning laws would not allow any building in the village to be more than three stories.

Concern about parking also came up, with some people saying there already is not enough of it in the business district. Mr. Epley countered that by saying that there is more than enough parking at night, and that during the day, even in the summer, there are still spaces available. They might not be immediately in front of the place an individual would like to patronize, he said, but are always within a five-minute walk.

“The parking issues stem from the daytime traffic, and it’s driven by the employees,” Mr. Epley said. “So, if employees of the offices and the stores on Main Street and Jobs Lane parked in areas that were not near their businesses … then the parking issue wouldn’t be as drastic.”

Resident Evelyn Konrad echoed the other residents’ comments, saying increased density in the village over the last 10 years “has been horrible” and has hurt local merchants. “We’ve lost 30 percent of our year-round residents. We have lost all the mom-and-pop stores. What are you preparing for?” she said. “The wonderful, small, local businesses have been driven out.”

But Mr. Epley, who was at the meeting to answer questions, explained that the village can use the sewer district to help fill vacant buildings in the business district. The old library building at the corner of Main Street and Jobs Lane, for example, has tremendous potential to be a restaurant, but would never be approved by the Suffolk County Health Department because of septic limitations, Mr. Epley said.

“When you look at Windmill Lane, Nugent Street, and you see the amount of vacancies … these are things that are hurting our community,” the mayor said.

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