Closing in on Septic Systems

The East Hampton Village Board grappled with drafting laws that would require septic system upgrades and restrict the use of gas-powered leaf blowers at a work session last Thursday.

Because nitrogen from traditional septic systems has been tied to ground and surface water pollution, state, county, and local agencies, as well as East Hampton Town, have mandated upgrades to technologically advanced, nitrogen-reducing systems. The Suffolk Department of Health Services has given provisional approval to five such systems.

To determine the best way to proceed, the village board examined the septic system law passed by East Hampton Town in August 2017, which included a rebate on the price of installing new systems that applies to the village.

The town legislation requires nitrogen-reducing systems for all new construction, for existing structures that undergo substantial expansion, for a sanitary system that is voluntarily replaced, and for a commercial property where more intensive use requires site plan review. Large-capacity cesspools also fall under the mandate.

Citing the main issues for discussion on Thursday, Becky Molinaro Hansen, the village administrator, said the board needed to decide if the law would apply to commercial properties and whether it would apply throughout the incorporated village or only in high-priority areas such as near wetlands. By the end of the discussion, the board agreed that the village law, like the town’s, should mandate a septic upgrade for all new construction. As for systems that are voluntarily replaced, the board proposed an exemption for residents whose existing systems fail.

Before these subjects were addressed, Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. questioned Billy Hajek, the village planner and a member of the town’s water quality technical advisory committee, on whether the county’s “provisional” approval of specific systems implied that they might not actually work. “To my knowledge the Suffolk County Health Services Department has not signed off on the notion that these systems are indeed acceptable,” the mayor said. 

Mr. Hajek confirmed that only two of the five approved systems meet the county’s goal of reducing nitrogen output by nearly 80 percent. He noted, however, that even new substandard systems are better than conventional ones. “They’re still reducing nitrogen by as much as 50 percent,” he said. 

The town’s law states that when the floor area of an existing structure is increased by 50 percent or when improvements lead to a 50-percent increase in value, septic upgrade is required. The village board suggested eliminating valuation, reducing the floor area expansion to 25 percent, and adding a septic upgrade requirement based on an increase in the number of existing bedrooms.  

Meanwhile, the board is contemplating installing a centralized waste management system in the village business district. Because Mr. Hajek said nitrogen-reducing systems for commercial use are still in an experimental stage, a decision was made to focus the impending law solely on residential properties for now. The law will apply to all residential properties, not just those in designated high-priority areas. 

In discussion of the use of gas-powered leaf blowers, a frequent source of noise complaints, East Hampton Village Police Chief Michael Tracey told the board that according to an official tally of complaints from June 1 to last Thursday, 21 out of 58 calls were related to lawn equipment. 

Rose Brown, a trustee, said she had received numerous reports about noise and recommended that the board look at how other municipalities have legislated against gas-powered equipment. Richard Lawler and Barbara Borsack, two other members of the board, said the village should lead by example and allow only battery-operated or electric devices to clear public property. Arthur Graham, a board member, emphasized that landscapers needed training on how to use leaf blowers most effectively.

Bill Fox, the owner of a landscaping business, agreed that training was important and said his firm had already started using battery-powered equipment. “The compliments I’ve been getting on the weed wackers is great,” he said. “But the blowers are not quite there yet in terms of efficiency.”

He also said that buying new equipment would greatly increase his costs, estimating that it would take $30,000 to supply his workers with 30 new battery-powered devices. He recommended that the board phase in the law over three years. The board agreed that a phase-in period was necessary. The matter was adjourned to allow a law to be drafted, after which a public hearing will be held.