Hefty Price for Montauk Waste Treatment

Properties would pay annually based on output
Montauk's oceanfront motels would contribute as much as $250,000 each if a new central sewage plant is built, under a town proposal Jane Bimson

A $32.8 million centralized wastewater treatment system being designed for downtown Montauk would eliminate septic system headaches faced by many businesses and prevent contaminants from reaching ground and surface waters, but could cost some of the larger businesses more than six figures a year.

Costs to individual downtown properties that would initially be hooked up would be apportioned through a tax district to be created by the town, based on the gallons per day of sewage that each property would be putting into the system. The businesses that generate the largest amount of septic waste would pay the largest share of the system’s capital and operating costs.

As proposed, in its first phase the project would serve 199 developed properties in the downtown area. The system could be extended to the area surrounding the Long Island Rail Road station in Montauk in a second phase for an additional $13 million, and in a third phase to the dock area and Star Island for $23 million, at a total cost of more than $69 million. 

Wastewater would be collected throughout the downtown area through a gravity-based system and piped to a collection spot at a beach parking area, then pumped to a treatment station that would strip it of contaminants.

The resulting effluent, free of biological agents, pharmaceuticals, a host of chemicals dubbed “emerging contaminants,” and of virtually all nitrogen, would be clean enough to reuse, and could be piped back into Montauk, perhaps for irrigation use at the Montauk Downs golf course.

An area at the town’s Montauk recycling center and landfill, or on an adjacent, privately owned cell tower site, has been recommended for the treatment plant. 

According to Pio Lombardo of Lombardo Associates, the engineering firm that created the town’s comprehensive wastewater management plan and has been working on the design of the septic treatment project, 90 percent of the developed properties in Montauk’s downtown “have serious needs for an improved wastewater system.” 

“Our concern is public health,” he said at a town board meeting on Tuesday, citing an inadequate separation between septic systems and groundwater. 

According to Mr. Lombardo’s assessment, the project would be affordable if the town can obtain grants for at least half of its cost.

Property owners in downtown Montauk would bear the costs of the construction and operation of the project’s first phase. 

Estimated annual costs to various individual downtown businesses, calculated according to the amount of grant money the town might be awarded to help pay for the system, were presented at a town board meeting on Tuesday by Mr. Lombardo.

 Many of downtown Montauk’s businesses already shoulder a hefty annual bill for repeated septic system pumpouts to deal with inadequate, failing systems that they cannot replace with higher-technology systems on their own properties because “there’s just no room for a code-compliant system,” Mr. Lombardo explained. “The bottom line in downtown Montauk is these properties have problems.” 

The annual cost, for example, to the Royal Atlantic Beach Resort, which generates the highest amount of septic waste, could reach $251,990 if no grants are received and the town has to pay off the entire cost of the system, or could be $120,150 should 75 percent of the cost be covered by grant money. 

The Atlantic Terrace Motel, which generates the second-largest amount of waste, would be charged $132,390 annually, without grant money offsetting the project’s costs, or $63,230 if grants for 75 percent of the cost are received.

If no grants are received, yearly charges to smaller hotels and businesses on the list of the top-30 waste generators, such as the Sloppy Tuna bar and restaurant or the Shagwong Tavern and the Albatross West motel, would range from about $76,000 down to $28,000. If grants are secured to cover 75 percent of the project’s cost, the range would be $37,000 to $13,500.

Because of a dearth of baseline data, Mr. Lombardo said that the positive environmental impact — on reduction of bacteria and nitrogen in water, for example — of the $32 million system can only be estimated. 

“We have environmental degradation — measurable degradation,” said Laura Tooman, the director of Concerned Citizens of Montauk, which has an ongoing water-testing program. “We have septics in groundwater; we have non-code-compliant septics and cesspools, and businesses pumping on a daily basis.”  

Several funding sources for the wastewater treatment project have been identified, including two state funds earmarked for water quality. The town has already applied to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for $5 million under its water quality improvement program. Other county, state, and regional grants could be available, as well as a low-interest loan through the State Environmental Facilities Corporation, Mr. Lombardo said Tuesday. 

In addition, the town could apply some of its community preservation fund money, from the 20-percent portion of the fund authorized for use on water quality projects, to the project.

Should officials choose to do that, and depending on how they calculate the amount that can be allocated per property in the wastewater treatment zone, almost $10 million of the cost could be covered. 

If, however, officials allocate C.P.F. money on a per-property basis, rather than based on the volume of septic flow coming from a property, the amount the preservation fund could contribute toward the treatment system cost would be far less, at approximately $2 or $3 million.

Plans for the wastewater treatment system are being developed in conjunction with the long-term hamlet study and plan for Montauk, which is nearing completion by consultants. 

Mr. Lombardo laid out an aggressive timeline for the next steps in the project, in order to meet a June 2018 deadline for application to an expected $5 million New York State grant program. 

A map and plan for the wastewater treatment system tax district would be prepared in the coming months and presented to the public for discussion in April and May in advance of a town board vote on formation of the district in May or June. 

In order to build public consensus for the project, Mr. Lombardo suggested holding small group meetings, with property owners. Because many leave Montauk for the season, the meetings could be held both in Montauk and in New York City, and through webinars, he said. 

Fewer than half the downtown property owners polled earlier about the project expressed their initial support, Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell noted, so “there’s work to do,” he said.

With county and state enforcement efforts pending against cesspools and septics that do not meet current standards, said Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc, the town’s supervisor-elect, “the clock is ticking” for property owners out of compliance, “and this would be the only way for them to solve their problem.”

Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby expressed concern about the unintended consequences, such as increased development, of installing a centralized waste treatment system. Mr. Lombardo said the potential for secondary growth impacts would be analyzed and addressed in the project plans. “There are legal and technical ways to keep it under control. What I’ve been advised by your Planning Department is that there are other factors; you’ve got a lot of control mechanisms in place.” 

“Our zoning laws are pretty restrictive, because of parking and setbacks and whatnot,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. Sewage district regulations could limit the extent to which each property could use the sewage district, or, for instance, suggested Mr. Van Scoyoc, allow increased use on certain properties for only certain purposes, such as the creation of affordable housing. 

Supervisor Cantwell pointed out that community preservation fund law specifically precludes use of that money for water quality projects that could induce growth. “That needs to be very clear, in writing, added right up front.”

Grant applications, design work, and permitting would take place through the rest of 2018 and 2019, with construction to begin in 2020. The system could be in operation by 2022 or 2023, Mr. Lombardo said. 

A summary of Mr. Lombardo’s presentation to the board will be posted to the town’s website.