If Somers doesn’t move forward on the formation of sewer districts in two of its lake communities, it might wind up flushing a great opportunity down the toilet, insist town officials.
Things that are at stake were laid out at a recent public hearing on the proposed multi-million-dollar infrastructure project hosted by the Town Board and held at Somers Middle School.
The high density of aging septic fields and cesspools in both the Shenorock and Lincolndale communities is impacting the watershed, which include supplies reservoirs owned by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.
And polluted Lake Shenorock—once the center of the community—has deteriorated to the point where it’s been closed to swimming and has been designated an “at-risk waterbody” by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Lake Lincolndale is showing similar signs of eutrophication. Algae blooms recently forced the county Department of Health to close it to swimming.
Mother Nature is partly to blame. The soil is poor and the bedrock and groundwater have shallow depths.
Replacing a single failed septic system can cost $10-50,000, according to Kenneth Kohlbrener, of Woodard & Curran, the town’s engineering consultants.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines septic density as “high” when there are more than 40 systems in a square mile area. Shenorock has 2,150; Lincolndale, 1,780.
Even if folks don’t care about the environment, or if their wells become tainted and New York City residents lose a source of clean drinking water, there are economic factors to consider.
Dumping reliance on septic systems lifts limits on development, allows property owners to add to their homes, and results in potentially higher property values and an enhanced tax base. And having somewhere nice to swim or fish in would return Shenorock and Lincolndale to the vibrant lake communities they once were, the town says.
The town has developed a three-pronged strategy for improving water quality, engineering consultant Joe Barbagallo told the crowd Thursday, Aug. 15.
The first involved using $875,500 in state grants to install stormwater retrofits to keep phosphorus and other bad stuff from getting into Lake Shenorock. Improvements were completed last May. Somers is seeking funding to do the same for Lake Lincolndale.
Next up is the building of a sanitary sewer system. The last “prong” is the improvement of recreational opportunities that could revitalize the lake communities.
“It took us a long time to get to this point,” Barbagallo said.
In 1998, the NYCDEP socked away $68 million in a fund held by Westchester County.
In 2006, the Northern Westchester Watershed Committee, made up of town supervisors and county representatives, earmarked $10 million of that to sewer Shenorock and Lincolndale. It re-committed the funds in 2019. So “all of the communities in northern Westchester County are behind moving this forward,” he said.
“A lot of folks might be thinking … 1998 … 2019. A lot of time has passed. Why haven’t we spent this money and why haven’t we built our sewers?
A lot of it has to do with a historic barrier that’s in place … a political barrier at the county level. In order for these projects to move forward, the county has to expand its sewer district for its wastewater treatment plant in Peekskill,” Barbagallo said
Wastewater from The Preserve at Somers, a development in Baldwin Place, already goes to Peekskill, but its infrastructure was intended to take wastewater from Lincolndale and Shenorock as well.
According to Supervisor Rick Morrissey, chair of the NWWC: “These funds have been caught in a bureaucratic mess for the past 20 years, but significant progress has been made.”
It’s going to take a vote of at least nine county lawmakers to make Somers’ sewer dreams come true. Action is expected either in November—or in January, after budget season.
Once it gets the county’s blessings, the town can segue into design and construction mode. It aims to start the bidding process in late 2020 and have toilets flushing by 2021.
Sending its wastewater to Peekskill rather than to Heritage Hills’ treatment plant will save each homeowner an average $300 in annual operation and maintenance costs.
“It is the low-cost solution. And we’ve tried to keep it as low as possible by introducing grant monies. We’re not going to fund this entirely moving forward on your tax dollars,” Barbagallo said.
The town, which employs a full-time grant writer, is chasing another $3 million in funding through the state’s Water Infrastructure Improvement Act (WIIA).
According to a handout distributed at the hearing, that would bring the initial project up to $13 million and sewer up to 88 properties in Shenorock and up to 45 in Lincolndale.
Project costs cover sewer mains, pump stations, and connections to each property. The line would come to within five feet of a building, but the owner would be responsible for closing the gap and interior plumbing. Phase 1, costing $10-13 million is 100 percent funded. Phase 2A’s cost is $28.1-$30.1 million, with funding at $18-20 million; Phase 2B, $21.1-22.1 million, with funding at $16.5-$17.5 million.
Without outside funding, Kohlbrener said, the project could cost “three to four times what we’re talking about.”
It is currently looking at ways to add about 50 parcels to the district which would double “the number of connections we can provide for about a third of the cost,” he said.
Average annual costs for homeowners are not to exceed $1,200 when all properties “are up and flushing,” he said. These cover the county buy-in ($184), operation and maintenance of the system ($302), and financing ($710). Actual per property costs are based on assessed values and could range from $500 to $2,200 per year. The state comptroller has to approve the rate.
The town plans to confab with grant consultants in September on a wider financial strategy. It plans to form the district on Sept. 12 and submit its grant application to WIIA the next day.
The original $68 million pot of grant money has been whittled down to about $30 million over the years by requests from other municipalities in the region, including North Salem, which used its $10 million to sewer the Peach Lake community; and Bedford, which purchased the sewage treatment plant at a local prison to service its school system and Katonah’s business district.
There are other communities eyeing the remaining money, and at some point the folks with their fingers on the purse strings are going to give it to the ones who’ve shown progress.
“So if the town of Somers ever needed any initiative to put a program together it’s now,” Morrissey said.
Once Somers gets its foot in the door, Latimer has promised to push the city, which has “placed in an obligation on northern Westchester” to protect its water supplies,” for more funding.
If things don’t move forward, there will be no more “buckets” of money coming, because New York City has told them that “they are not going to grant any more money to the county until this initial fund is depleted,” Morrissey said.
“What this sewer district does is put a stake in the ground. It says we’re serious about doing something here,” said Councilman Anthony Cirieco.
“But if we don’t act, rest assured that there are going to be other communities that are going to want to secure those funds.”
Granted, the town would have gotten more for its money if it was spent earlier, said Councilman Rich Clinchy, but “that’s water under the bridge so to speak.”
If the project is done right “the city wins, the town wins, and individual homeowners win,” he said
Lincolndale’s Paul Mastrantoni questioned the “buy-in” fee. Barbagallo explained that Westchester has invested a lot in its sewage system. All property owners within the Somers district would pay an average $170-$184 annually, depending on their home’s assessed value. That fee “sunsets” after 10 years. Should the county have to upgrade infrastructure, all the communities in the larger district would shoulder the cost.
“You would be in the sewer district. That is a major benefit. This is our chance to get in. The county is not likely to open that door again for us,” Barbagallo said.
Properties not included in Phase 1 would be reimbursed by the county when they pump out their septic tanks, something that costs about $400, and has to be done every two years. So the buy-in fee is “essentially a wash” for those folks.
Shenorock’s Norine McArdle called the project “exciting,” but wondered when financing would be wrapped up. After the 30-year bond is paid off, unless “more debt is taken on for upgrades,” Barbagallo explained.
Lincolndale’s Lisa Healy worried about zoning law changes and whether this meant more properties could be developed, changing the character of the community.
Barbagallo said the R-10 zoning would remain in place. The county oversees septic issues and determines the number of bedrooms allowed based on each system’s capacity. Any lot can be developed as long as it meets local zoning and environmental regulations. The $10 million earmarked for Phase 1 cannot be used to connect existing buildings, not vacant land.
Shenorock’s Trisha LaBella, whose property rolls down to the lake but is not in the proposed district, questioned the way lines were drawn.
“A lot of people are excluded, even though they live on the lake. I know there’s a line, but there’s also topography that comes into play.” Holding up the handout, LaBella said: “That kinda looks like my house and my backyard.”
“We had to draw the line somewhere, and we drew it around the R-10 district,” which has smaller lots where wastewater problems are more likely to occur and are harder to correct, Barbagallo responded.
“Maybe there could be a commonsense approach then to drawing the line for said district,” LaBella countered.
Those outside the lines can petition the town to get in. “We’re not closing the door on allowing you into the sewer district,” Morrissey told her.
One resident wondered if the town hadn’t considered installing an aerator and stocking the lake with fish that consume aquatic weeds.
Morrissey said he’d also like to see Lake Shenorock dredged but the town can’t get funding for that until it proves its handling all of its contaminants.
“I still want to make Dennis’s (Dennis DiSanto, stalwart steward of the lake) dream come true and have people swim there one day,”
Public hearings have been scheduled for 7 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 5, and Thursday, Sept 12 at the Somers Town House, 335 Route 202.
Shenorock’s Stacy Silverstein urged people to make their concerns heard, saying: “They cannot design this without all of our input.”