When Anthony Hobson, an architect with Stelle Lomont Rouhani Architects in Bridgehampton, bought a modest house in Flanders for himself, his wife, and baby girl two years ago, he knew it would need a new septic system. When he learned about Suffolk County's septic improvement incentive program that could combine with an additional incentive from Southampton Town, he decided to be the program's very first applicant.
Anthony Hobson, the first applicant for the county septic improvement incentive program, is all smiles at last Thursday's installation of his free system. Kitty Merrill. (click for larger version)
"From day one I wanted to be the first," Hobson said, standing in the dirt next to heavy equipment, smiling as he watched his diligence come to fruition. Last Thursday he became the first homeowner in the county to use the government incentives to cover the $25,000 cost of installing a high tech wastewater treatment system. "It's basically free for me," Hobson said.
And, it's "a big leap forward in our effort to reclaim our water," according to County Executive Steve Bellone. Bellone was joined by an array of elected officials, environmentalists, and septic technicians who clambered down into the ditch to view the high tech system and mark its installation. "This represents the beginning of the solution to the water quality crisis in our region," the CE summarized.
"Did you know you were the first?" Bellone asked Hobson.
"That was the whole goal," he replied.
Officials estimate there are some 360,000 failing septic systems in Suffolk County. Bellone predicted that, thanks to the incentive program, "We're going to do hundreds, and thousands, and eventually tens of thousands [of installations] across the county." So far, some 80 grants have been issued of 532 respondents to the program.
According to South Fork Legislator Bridget Fleming, 25 percent of the grants awarded and 35 percent of the applicants have been in this district. "We can lead the way," she said, noting the Hobson property overlooks Reeve's Bay across Flanders Road. The task of addressing myriad water quality issues is daunting, the legislator observed. But it's also a must for the region's environmental and economic survival. It's estimated the cost to upgrade all the county's outdated septic systems tops $8 billion, she said, "but we're kick-starting it here."
Given the region grapples with brown tide, harmful algal blooms, fish kills, and closed beaches, all thought to be due to excess nitrogen in the waters, Fleming observed, "We're ground zero here."
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, lauded Hobson for stepping forward to participate in the program. While it was crafted through "the will and the strength of good leaders," she reminded the engagement of the public is crucial. Hobson, she said, "raised his hand and said 'I want to be a pioneer for change.'"
Assemblyman Fred Thiele joked that the last time the lawmakers were all together, they met at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island to herald the county's first installation of an alternative onsite "constructed wetlands" wastewater treatment system with a celebratory first flush: "We had a big ceremony to flush a toilet. Now we're having a big ceremony to install a septic system." Both gatherings touted the systems' ability to reduce the amount of nitrogen reaching ground and surface waters.
At the Hobsons, the system is comprised of four tanks to store and treat waste that, once it passes through multiple layers of treatment, is sent into a pressurized shallow drain field that improves distribution of wastewater from the system. It is expected to remove 70 percent of nitrogen compared to a conventional septic system.
In July, Suffolk County launched the first-in-the-state Septic Improvement Program to incentivize eligible homeowners to replace their cesspool or septic system with the newer and advanced wastewater treatment technologies. Homeowners can apply for grants of up to $11,000 to offset the cost of one of the new systems, which typically cost between $15,000 and $20,000. An additional $1000 in grant money may be available for residents wishing to install optional pressurized shallow drain fields.
In addition to the grant, homeowners can qualify to finance the remaining cost of the systems over 15 years at a low three percent fixed interest rate. The loan program will be administered by CDCLI Funding Corp, with financial support from Bridgehampton National Bank in the amount of $1 million, and financial commitments from several philanthropic foundations.
A total of $10 million over five years has been appropriated by the Suffolk County Legislature through the Suffolk County Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund. This equates to $2 million for the first year as well as each subsequent year through 2021. Funding for the grant-based program was made possible as a result of approval by Suffolk County voters of a 2014 referendum that authorized use of funding for nitrogen reducing septic systems.
Said Thiele, "Together with New York State's $2.5 billion water quality improvement program approved by the State Legislature in April and voter approval on the East End of a new water quality component to the Community Preservation Fund last November, thousands of homeowners will now be able to access the financial incentives necessary to upgrade outdated and failing septic systems." Voters said yes to using up to 20 percent of Community Preservation Fund money for water quality projects, which include incentive programs for system upgrades, as in Southampton Town.
"The program is affordable and it's workable and that's why it's going to succeed," Esposito said.
To learn more about the county program, visit www.ReclaimOurWater.info.