Murray: Sewers: good for the environment, good for the economy

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By Dan Sears

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Not often is a policy initiative good for both the environment and business. Sewer expansion is one of those initiatives. The development of sewer systems in Suffolk County would not only reduce health-harming nitrogen levels in the water supply, but it would encourage the growth of businesses and the housing supply by increasing the capacity of sanitation systems and reducing costs in the long run.

This increase in economic activity would benefit all taxpayers by enlarging the tax base to pay for government services such as schools, parks and transportation infrastructure without raising taxes on existing residents.

Yet, time and again, sewer expansion has been stymied by residents opposing increased development.

As the first area on Long Island to be developed, Nassau County has had sewers for decades. In contrast, approximately 74% of Suffolk County residential properties utilize septic systems, which are rife with problems. Septic systems emit nitrogen into our groundwater and the waters surrounding Long Island. A recent report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned that nitrogen released from conventional septic systems may end up in drinking water and create algal blooms in the ocean and lakes. Algal blooms produce toxins, which can sicken humans and animals while increasing the cost of providing clean drinking water.

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Past efforts to expand sewers in Suffolk were opposed by those fearing that sewers—which facilitate increased population density—might encourage the development of low-income housing. Others point to the scandals of the 1980s involving the construction of the Southwest Sewer District. The expansion of sewers became the “third rail” of local politics.

Further complicating the issue is the debate among environmentalists as whether the emphasis should be on expanding sewers or upgrading septic systems. Some environmental advocates see sewers as the best way to curb nitrogen emissions, while others favor using available funding to modernize existing septic systems.

This debate played out in 2023 when the Suffolk County Legislature refused to allow a referendum to increase the local sales tax by 0.125% to raise funds to protect the water supply. A main dispute concerned what percentage of the increase would go toward updating septic systems as opposed to the construction of new sewers. The proposal would have 75% go to upgrading septic systems and 25% to building sewers, but the majority in the county legislature wanted those percentages reversed to encourage development and refused to grant a vote on the proposal.

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Even Gov. Hochul sidestepped the thorny issue of expanding sewers. She recently announced her proposal to dedicate tens of millions of dollars to protect water resources, with the funds dedicated to Long Island to be used for the upgrade of septic systems and other efforts to protect water resources from pollution. No new money was set aside for sewers.

Given the threat to our water caused by high nitrogen levels, local government must act. Money raised through efforts such as the proposed slight sales tax increase can both fund the expansion of sewers and improve existing septic systems in coastal areas where sewers are unfeasible. Like any complicated issue, our policymakers devise an appropriate compromise to make sewer expansion part of responsible development.

 

Christopher “Chris” Murray is a partner at Rivkin Radler LLP’s Commercial Litigation and Real Estate practice groups. He has over 30 years of experience in all aspects of complex commercial, environmental, commercial real estate and business transactions and litigation. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessary represent the views of the firm. He can be reached at 516-357-3045 or [email protected]

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