Sewer meeting in Flanders highlights challenges, solutions

The proposed Flanders-Riverside sewer district currently being studied by the county may need to be scaled down to include just the commercial corridor along Flanders Road in Riverside, said county Legislator Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk).

That was one of the issues discussed at the first “stakeholders” meeting on the sewer district proposal Monday night at the David Crohan Community Center in Flanders.

“This proposal comes about because many people from this area have come to me looking for some commercial development to offset the tax rates here, because so much of the land is off the tax rolls,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “Maybe if there was some commercial development, it could help lower everybody’s taxes.”

But he added that county health department requirements regarding groundwater protection make it difficult for commercial development to get approvals, since the area is surrounded by environmentally sensitive areas like the Peconic River and the Pine Barrens.

Because of this, he said the only way to attract commercial development to the area is through the development of a sewer district, in which sewage would be collected in the district and treated before being discharged, either into the ground or to surface water.

Monday’s meeting was poorly attended, and Mr. Schneiderman said a second “first stakeholders meeting” will probably need to be held as a result. Only 15 people were in attendance, and all but three of them were government officials or reporters.

“This is too important a subject not to have a full house,” he said.

The current area being studied includes not only commercial areas in Riverside — such as the town’s industrial park and proposed hamlet center at the former drive-in movie site, and the land where developer Dede Gotthelf has proposed a hotel on the north side of Flanders Road — but also residential areas stretching into the Bay View Pines section of Flanders.

The Bay View Pines area is one where a sewer system could protect groundwater, since it has a high water table and many residences are served by cesspools. However, there isn’t much commercial development there, or anywhere in Flanders.

“If the driving force is to enable development, then we probably should cut it off here at Route 105,” Mr. Schneiderman said, suggesting the study only consider Riverside.

He said the goal of including the Flanders sites would be environmental, but that it was always his understanding that the point of having a sewer district was to enable more commercial development.

“I haven’t heard much of a cry for commercial development in Flanders,” he said.

Mr. Schneiderman said the smaller the area to be included in the district, the more likely it is to be funded.

“If we narrow the focus, we might get more bang for the buck,” he said.

The study itself was funded by a $250,000 county grant, but the cost of developing a sewer district is expected to be a multi-million dollar endeavor that will likely need federal or state funding, he said.

Neighboring Riverhead Town, which spent $9 million to bring its sewer plant up to “state-of-the-art” standards in 2002, now faces another $18 million upgrade because the federal government has made its standards for sewage treatment even more stringent, according to engineer Frank Russo of H2M, who is working on this study and also is a consultant for Riverhead’s sewer district.

But Southampton Councilwoman Bridget Fleming said cesspools from the Bay View Pines area could have an impact on the Peconic Bay system, which would be a reason to extend the sewer district to the residential area.

She also acknowledged that it would make sense to limit the study to the commercial areas in Riverside.

Mr. Schneiderman said he believes most residential property owners wouldn’t want to be in the sewer district because of the additional cost.

But Janice Young, the president of the Bay View Pines Civic Association, said that the water table is only six inches above sea level in parts of her neighborhood, and that if residents try to sell their homes, they may be required to install costly cesspool upgrades to do so.

“There’s a financial impact, one way or another,” she said.

Mr. Schneiderman said it comes down to a debate between economic development versus environmental protection.

But he added, “Once you put [sewering the residential areas] in, it may make the whole thing so cost prohibitive that [sewering the commercial areas] can’t happen.”

Mary Anne Taylor, a consultant from CDM, which was hired by the county Department of Public Works to do the study, said that other issues that have to be decided include the location of the sewage treatment plant, and where the effluent would be discharged after it’s treated.

The proximity of the Pine Barrens and the Peconic River make both decisions difficult, officials said.

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