County Executive Steve Bellone on Oct. 15 signs a bill requiring innovative septic systems for most new construction. Courtesy photo

New construction in unsewered areas of Suffolk County will be required to have innovative nitrogen-reducing wastewater systems rather than traditional septic systems as of July 2021.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Thursday signed a bill unanimously passed by the county legislature Oct. 6 modifying the county sanitary code to implement the new septic system requirements.

“Protecting water quality is a top priority for both our region’s environment and our economy,” Bellone said in a press release after the bill signing ceremony, which took place on the shore of Lake Ronkonkoma. The new requirements will help “ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy cleaner water in the bays, harbors and beaches that make Suffolk County such a special place,” he said.

“This legislation is a historic step towards a more sustainable and healthy environment,” Bellone said.

North Fork Legislator Al Krupski, who has been active on the working group responsible for developing the county’s septic improvement program, joined Bellone, other legislators and the environmental advocates at Ronkonkoma County Park Thursday to witness the bill-signing.

“Mainlining our human waste, along with all the other cleaners, health and beauty care products and pharmaceuticals, into our drinking water is not sustainable,” Krupski said. He lauded the leadership of the county executive as well as that of Deputy County Executive Peter Scully and the work of the county health department and the planning and public works departments.

“The process was inclusive from the beginning, with the towns, villages, environmental groups and builders represented,” Krupski said.

Advanced systems will be required in all new home and commercial construction, and for single-family home renovations that increase the number of bedrooms to more than five and increase the building’s footprint or floor area.

The bill also provides greater flexibility for the use of smaller sewage treatment plants, a change intended to assist businesses that rely on cesspools to shift to systems that reduce nitrogen instead, allowing expansion of uses while better protecting water quality, according to Bellone’s press release.

The new law is the latest in a series of actions the county has taken in recent years to move away from the use of cesspools and septic systems that have been identified as a primary source of nitrogen pollution.

In 2016, Suffolk adopted Article 19 of the Suffolk County Sanitary Code, which sets forth a rigorous individual nitrogen-reducing septic systems testing and approval process.

In 2017, Suffolk County unveiled the septic improvement program, the first of its kind in New York State, which provides grants and low interest financing to make the replacement of cesspools and septic systems with new technologies affordable for homeowners who choose to upgrade their systems. To date, more than 1,900 homeowners have applied for the program, resulting in the issuance 1,082 grants. Nearly 600 systems have been installed under the grant program. The success of the program has received statewide recognition, as New York State awarded Suffolk $10 million or almost 70% of the entire $15 million in state septic system replacement funds distributed statewide in 2018. A second award of state funding is expected in early 2021.

Nearly three years ago, at the same site, County Executive Bellone signed a landmark cesspool ban into law. This legislation banned the installation of new cesspools in Suffolk County, closing a loophole that had existed in the sanitary code since 1973, and required “grandfathered” business properties to install nitrogen-reducing advanced systems.

The legislation signed into law this week is the first policy change being advanced based on recommendations in the county’s 2019 Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan, which determined that the use of innovative individual onsite wastewater treatment systems is the most cost-effective means of reducing nitrogen pollution from onsite wastewater sources in Suffolk County.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.