Infrastructure. Buried in this somewhat innocuous phrase are some of the most compelling items that make a community work and allow it to develop—things like roads, transportation, access to water and perhaps the least ‘sexy’…waste management systems. When we get right down to it, community development in Northern Westchester is constricted by the lack of sewers and failing septic systems — where all too often the “country air” is overpowered by eau de “failing septic.”
Water is one of most precious resources, so it seems common sense to protect it. The protection of water sources is the central factor around septic, sewers and the state of affairs of waste water in Westchester. Our reservoirs provide New York City with drinking water. New York City wants to protect that water. To that end, New York City protects its water by owning land in the watershed and regulating uses in and around that watershed. The land in the watershed area is considerable and is restricted in terms of residential or commercial development.
A new decentralized septic system with new technologies might make a considerable difference in saving failed systems and allowing smarter growth. Folks in northern Westchester would also like to protect their water. However, years of outdated and failed systems, have polluted its’ own water resources with polluted public wells. Complex regulations and outdated “safeguards” prevent new systems from being built.
There have been numerous housing developments that have either failed or been done on a very tight budget because of septic system constraints. Not only does a proposed development have to have land for the building(s), walkways, parking areas but also for the septic system and for an 100% expansion area (the area that if the existing system with galley and fields fail could then replace that system).
Time and time again, the need for an expansion area and well-drained area (a rare commodity given the rocky soil here in Westchester) for fields have decreased the area for the actual development.
When A-HOME was doing its project in Pound Ridge, twelve efficiency apartments for seniors, the area needed for septic was a real pressure on the development. It was a tight site, with rocks, slopes, and the requirement of a parking area of a specific size. The only way that development could be completed was to have an expansion area in the woods and the system itself located under the parking area. Septic systems take up considerable flat land, land which could be used for construction.
Each affordable housing development that I have been involved with in a non-sewered area must undergo what I call “the bedroom count polka.” According to New York State and Westchester County regulations, the size of a proposed development with only septic technology is dependent on how many bedrooms a specific site can accommodate. It is the bedroom count that matters, not the bathroom count. If the engineers in conjunction with the Board of Health determine that you can only accommodate 12 bedrooms on a site, then that limitation is the developer’s reality. Their calculation is based on the area available and how the soil percolates in that confined area. The size of the development is based on the number of bedrooms, equating somewhat to the number of people in each bedroom, not the number of potential homes. Sewers unlike septic systems can accommodate more bedrooms and more apartments or homes.
The number of homes, do make a difference to a project’s viability. If the site perks for only 12 bedrooms, building a larger number of apartments, 12, rather than bigger apartments, may be better for the bottom line of the development. To build 4 three bedroom homes is more expensive. Think of it this way. The cost of the development includes site work, construction and soft costs (fees associated with the development). Although the actual size of each home can raise the total development costs to some degree, it is the denominator (the number of homes) divided into the total development that plays a larger role in what is truly affordable.
The constraints that the lack of sewers has on building affordable housing in northern Westchester are very real. The Housing Settlement, so often in the news these days, that mandates the creation of affordable housing in “A” communities, is particularly difficult because of the lack of sewers and old technologies used for septic systems. When Pete Harckham left A-HOME’s presidency to become County Legislator, I told him that he could leave with my blessings only if he solved the septic/sewer issues for northern Westchester. I know that other events compelled Pete to start the septic subcommittee as part of the Environmental Committee at the County level, but I’d like to think affordable housing had something to do with it.
In September’s meeting of the County’s Septic subcommittee, news that New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection and New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation officials said they were open to discussing a pilot system in northern Westchester came as very good news. The legacy of outdated regulations for septic systems in Westchester may be coming to an end.
In the Fall of 2012, ACE was awarded a Westchester Community Foundation grant to explore the feasibility of septic systems that could be piloted in communities in northern Westchester. ACE’s Westchester Community Foundation Grant provides a much needed key and leverage to get a pilot project for a septic system accomplished. Here at ACE, we are committed to developing affordable housing and so we’re thrilled when we were able to partner with Westchester Community Foundation as well as some of our long time colleagues on the septic subcommittee to investigate new technologies.
Success for ACE would be to install a new type of septic system allowing a home to have normal water and waste water usage while keeping the region water supply safe and healthy ACE’s small system might be a first step in gaining acceptance for new technologies. Right now ACE is looking into repairing existing failed septic systems with new technologies, clustering these new systems on a block and investigating whether new construction can be incorporated in this model. There is more to come and we will update you on the web or with an update in our eblast. If you would like further information on the work of the septic subcommittee and learn more about the different type of decentralization go to: www.westchesterlegislators.com/committees/2041.html
Joan Arnold is the Executive Director of ACE and has worked on septic issues and housing development for thirty years.