Mastic-Shirley sewer project advances
A map of the proposed new sewer district.

Courtesy photo

Mastic-Shirley sewer project advances

Story By: NICOLE FUENTES
12/22/2016


The Forge River Watershed Sewer Project received federal and state funding for the Mastic area and is moving forward. Soon, engineers will go door to door to familiarize the community with the project.

Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), who has been working alongside community leaders, residents and Mastic-Shirley officials to solve the water pollution problem in this area, has been pushing for a sewer district for the past nine years since elected to office. She said it will be one of the largest projects the county has ever engaged in. 

In 2013, a sewer feasibility study was created, followed by a county water resource management plan in 2015, which called for a comprehensive approach to building sewers. The beginning phases of the project have already been approved for funding at both the state and federal levels. In addition to almost $200 million in federal funding, the project has also received a number of state grants and low-interest loans. This has allowed the project to move into its first phase of engineering and design of both the system and the advanced wastewater treatment facility.

Currently, according to Browning, engineers and surveyors are reviewing the project to determine the design and when to begin to build. As part of their work, they will be visiting every block, home and business affected by the project to keep the community in the loop. Door-to-door knocking will begin in early 2017 to invite the community to public meetings for further details of the process.

According to Browning, the overall effort is to reverse decades of nitrogen pollution from septic systems, cesspools and agricultural uses and runoff that have affected surface and groundwater for the worse. She said the wetlands play a critical role in protection against storm damage and nitrogen pollution is the leading cause of wetland, sea grass and salt marsh loss. The majority of the nitrogen pollution in the Great South Bay comes from un-sewered homes.

The solution, she says, is the sewer district. By hooking up homes and businesses, she said it will treat millions of gallons of waste annually and is expected to reduce nitrogen by 70 percent in the Forge River, the most severely polluted waterway in Suffolk County.

Peter Skully, deputy county executive for administration, is very familiar with the project, after being a part of the Forge River Project Task Force in 2005 and then regional director of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

He said he is pleased to see the project move forward, being that there is a dire need for active wastewater treatment instead of nitrogen-leaching cesspools.

“It’s quite remarkable that as a result of Superstorm Sandy we find ourselves posted to receive just under $200 million in federal funding to implement the project to protect the Forge River,” he said. “If you had told me in 2005 that this were possible, I would have never believed it.”

But not all are convinced the project will save the over-polluted river and instead believe it is more of an effort to redevelop that area of Montauk Highway. Kevin McAllister of Defend H20 said sewering is positive, but the claim that the project will save the river is misleading.

“Claiming a reduction in nitrogen doesn’t factor in redevelopment,” he said. “If everything stayed static and nothing changed, the reduction would be meaningful, but in 10 years that Montauk Highway corridor will be redeveloped, causing minimal reduction.”

According to a Forge River Nitrogen Reduction Report from the county in August 2014 and amended in June 2015, the summary claims an estimated 15 percent reduction. However, McAllister feels that number cannot be claimed due to the uncertainty in what redevelopment will bring. 

According to the county that reduction number calculates only the beginning phases of the project that are currently funded. Additional phases to include Mastic Beach, which is still in need of funding, would show nitrogen reduction numbers at about 70 percent.

McAllister said the project is progress, but the county needs to be clearer about what it is going to do. “It’s just not factual to say it’s going to clean up the river,” he added.

Browning felt McAllister’s claims were not backed and that sewers were the best and most economically feasible option for the area. She also said the amount and kind of redevelopment will depend on what the Town of Brookhaven approves.

“I believe the town only allows for second-floor development and I doubt our current supervisor or councilman would allow anything else,” she added.

According to councilman Dan Panico, the existing zoning in that area does not allow for as-of-right development above 35 feet, however, if a property owner wished to build a mixed-use project or multifamily house, additional approval would be necessary to change the zone. 

“I think the sewer district is very much needed for the area. Stemming the tide of nitrogen into our ground water, which makes its way into the Forge River and eventually into the bay, is long overdue,” he said. “The only thing I’d like to see is funding for the residential hookups.”

Individual home hookups will be partially funded by the project as of now. According to Browning’s office, all the equipment and pumps needed for residential hookups will be included in the capital budget at no upfront cost to the homeowner. However, the cost for a plumber to physically hook up the home to the pump will be placed on the homeowner. Browning’s office noted that assistance might be available in the future.

All hookups will be voluntary, however, the sewer fees placed on taxes will be dispersed throughout the sewer district, whether or not the homeowner chose to hook up.

Skully also disagreed with McAllister. He said the project would include an overall reduction in nitrogen loading into the river. “Clearly, the benefits of this project include both environmental and economic benefits,” he said. “The fact that hardworking business owners will benefit as well is a plus.”

Chamber of Commerce of the Mastics and Shirley president Beth Wahl explained her excitement for not only the local businesses but also the homeowners. She said many of the homes’ outdated cesspools are failing and polluting the already over-polluted Forge River. She also believes the new sewer district will bring in new business.

“If we do not get this sewer, we are never going to see an expansion of our businesses,” she said. “It is an absolute necessity.”

Once installed, she said, the sewers will attract restaurants to the community. As of now, their Montauk Highway corridor is very limited in the amount of seating permitted, instead attracting fast-food chains.

“Having a sewer district will change this considerably,” she added. “I have been advocating for sewers since 1992 and it’s our time. Thanks to Legis. Browning, it really looks like a strong possibility.”

Browning said her hope is that the sewer will attract businesses and restaurants that will revitalize Montauk Highway.

“Then, when people are looking to purchase a home in the Shirley-Mastic area and they drive through Montauk Highway, they will have an incentive to want to live in the community,” she said.

The funded project area includes areas in Mastic south of Main Street from Cumberland Street (west) to the Forge River (east) and down to just north of Riverside Avenue to the South and up north to Montauk Highway. The project also reaches north from Dana Avenue to just west of Lafayette Avenue and west in Shirley on Montauk Highway. The wastewater treatment facility is proposed for Brookhaven Calabro Airport, which is town property. The private sewer area near Ely Creek is a 55-and-up community that already has their own existing private wastewater treatment facility. The Mastic Beach expansion will require additional funding.

The projected timeline for the project is as follows: study, research and planning in 2016; preliminary design and engineering as well as environmental review and permitting in 2017 (this is where the project currently stands); final design and engineering in 2018 and construction in 2019.

In addition to the timeline, State Environmental Quality Review Acts and Natural Environmental Policy Act studies are being led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery. 

Since funding has already been approved, a referendum will be up for vote after planning is complete. Browning hopes to see that vote take place sometime in 2017-18. As of now, the next step is to complete the preliminary environment impact statement and follow it with a public hearing. For more information, visit www.forgewatershedsewers.com.