Somers Sewers Vote Reveals Deep Divide Over Issue in Community
For nearly everyone across the nation, Tuesday, Nov. 3 will mark the end of a long and nerve-racking election season.
For the 989 property owners in Somers’ Lake Lincolndale and Lake Shenorock, that anxiety, and in some cases divisiveness, will continue for another week.
On Nov. 10, the homeowners of the two lake communities will decide whether Somers Sewer District #2 shall be established to allow diversion of an estimated 325,000 gallons of sewage each day to the Westchester County’s wastewater treatment plant in Peekskill.
The $62.2 million project that will help protect the lakes, and in turn the New York City watershed, will use $10 million from the original $50 million East of Hudson funds secured by the county from the city in 1997 for water protection projects in five high-priority communities in northern Westchester, including Somers.
Residents on both sides of the issue in town, where some of the rhetoric has divided a community and put opponents at odds with town officials, can agree on the importance of next Tuesday’s vote.
“We kind of know what’s in the water, and we said years ago, the best thing we can ever have here is a public sewer system and get rid of these private septics because they’re really problematic,” said Michael O’Keefe, chairman of the board of the Lake Lincolndale Property Owners Association.
But those against the project have lodged a litany of objections. They argue a lack of transparency on the part of the Somers Town Board that is looking to push sewers through to pave the way for more development to questions about funding and whether they will be asked to pay more if the other money sources fail to materialize.
Lake Lincolndale resident John Mooren said he originally supported the project, but as time progressed there were too many questions about the cost to individual homeowners and where the majority of the funding will come from.
Mooren said many residents have lost faith in the town government because of the unanswered questions. He said he knows of no one with failing septic systems in the two communities – although some residents want sewers at any cost – and that he and others believe public water for Lake Lincolndale is just as important.
“I would love to have sewers but I don’t want to think just about myself,” Mooren said. “I want to think about my neighbors who are unemployed because of COVID-19 and their hardships. If there are hardships you can’t force certain things on people.”
Currently, the town has nearly $27.7 million set aside for the project – $10 million from the East of Hudson funds, which would pay for the first phase of the project to bring the first 103 properties on board, and a $1.3 million grant from the Army Corps of Engineers. If next week’s proposition is approved, another $16,197,000 would be borrowed.
That would translate into a cost of $1,187 a year for each parcel owner if they connect, according to town materials. For those who don’t hook up, and therefore would not have use of the sewers, they would pay $711 a year.
During Phase 1, the 103 property owners would initially pay $591 a year until phases 2 and 2A are completed.
Supervisor Rick Morrissey, who did not return phone calls for this article, has previously said that there is no ulterior motive for the sewer project, including enticing developers to the exclusively residential communities.
In an Oct. 19 letter to residents, he wrote that the project addresses health, safety and the environment and warned the East of Hudson funds could be lost if the town delays much longer.
“It has taken decades of advocacy by the Town to get the votes aligned in the County Legislature to permit sewer flow from Somers to be sent to the County wastewater treatment plant in Peekskill,” Morrissey wrote. “There are no guarantees that the $10 million will be held for another decade if this project fails to pass, there is a good chance that it could be reallocated, and no guarantee that outside funds, political will, or treatment capacity will exist again in the future.”
Morrissey said in August that the balance of the money would be sought through a variety of state and federal grants addressing water, sewer and environmental issues. There would be no construction until the funding is in place.
But many project opponents view his words with heavy skepticism. Resident Luana Kottman said there are always cost overruns when it comes to major construction projects, and the town hasn’t convinced her they won’t return to residents asking for more money.
Furthermore, a portion of the Lincoln Hall property is being sold, which will present development pressures.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, a global crisis,” Kottman said. “Nobody has any money to spare and nobody is going to give our government, (a) little sleepy town. I don’t know how good of a grant writer you are. How are you going to get that money? I don’t see it.”
For his part, Morrissey has said borrowing is capped at the nearly $16.2 million and that amount cannot be increased without returning to the public for another vote.
Lake Shenorock resident Jay Batchelor said he would prefer to look at enhanced septics for those people whose systems are failing. Even when treated, the wastewater discharged isn’t good for the Hudson River.
While he said he would hook up if the proposition is approved, Batchelor advocates exerting more pressure on the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to see if they will produce more money.
“If the DEP has their sights set on this and if it’s as big a problem as they say it is, then write us a check for $62 million and then all I’d have to deal with are grinder pumps,” Batchelor said.
But County Legislator Vedat Gashi (D-Yorktown) said the city wouldn’t likely pitch in more money until the original $50 million is used. Furthermore, with three of the other high-priority communities – Bedford Hills, Yorktown’s Hallock’s Mill Sewer District and New Castle – making progress on their sewage issues, there is a chance that the Somers money could be diverted if no solutions are advanced.
The fifth community, Peach Lake in North Salem, has completed its sewage project.
“It’s work that needs to be done, and it’s going to be done at some point whether you like it or not,” Gashi said. “It’s going to have to.”
Resident Michael Schwarzchild, of the Somers Lakes Sustainability Projects Committee, said the even if most residents’ septic systems are working properly, there is leaching of wastewater into the ground and chemicals in the lakes that are only a result of septics.
Furthermore, there are wells that are also in the ground that are near where untreated wastewater is seeping into the ground.
“The fact that (chemicals are) in the lake means that they’re flowing through the groundwater, which shows that they’re coming from septic systems,” Schwarzchild said. “This is our drinking water and there are too many septic systems because of the development of the community since the late 1920s. So it’s way past what the ground can absorb. I look at where my well is and I look at where my septic system is and it no longer makes sense.”
Schwarzchild and O’Keefe said a very real concern are neighbors who have lost income during the pandemic or are retired and on fixed incomes. They agreed the town should explore programs that can help them with the additional cost. Schwarzchild said no one should risk losing their home because of sewers.
O’Keefe said that neither the town nor the people who can afford should foist the expense onto those who can’t, but it’s a dilemma that needs to be solved.
“We really need this, there’s no question,” said O’Keefe. “It’s not even debatable in my mind.”
The vote will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 10 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Somers Town Hall. For more information, visit www.somersny.com.
Martin has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been editor-in-chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007. Read more from Martin’s editor-author bio here. Read Martin’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/martin-wilbur2007/