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Feb 2, 2016 11:40 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

When It Comes To Sewers, Municipalities Look To Patchogue Village For Inspiration

Patchogue Village, on any given night, is bustling with people visting the many restaurants, bars and music venues in its business district. ALYSSA MELILLO
Feb 2, 2016 12:42 PM

Michael White is a resident of Southampton Village who has been outspokenly critical about the village’s proposed sewer district. The builder made his position clear at a December 3 meeting of the Southampton Village Planning Commission, drawing a parallel to a nearby community that has gone down the same path.

He was clear: He didn’t want to see Southampton turn into Patchogue Village.

“They said, ‘We’re going to revitalize Patchogue.’ And you know what they did? They have a six-story building now with housing in it—and that’s exactly what’s going to happen here,” Mr. White said at the meeting, targeting one goal of the sewer district, which is to revitalize the village by growing the core business district—something Patchogue, arguably, has done.

“It’s happened all over Long Island,” Mr. White continued, referring to the increased density that’s allowed with the creation of sewer districts. “Every place they put a sewer on Long Island was to rehabilitate a village that was destitute. And we’re not destitute.”

Southampton’s zoning laws will prevent six-story structures—the Village Planning Commission reworked them before proceeding with the sewer district proposal—but New Village at Patchogue, the building Mr. White mentioned, is, in fact, just one of many housing projects that have sprung up in Patchogue as a result of a significant sewer plant upgrade in 2011.

And it’s not just residential properties that have been on the rise there—it’s restaurants, bars and music venues. It’s a noticeable improvement in a nearby river. It’s the growth of that village’s economy, nightlife, reputation and community. It’s a renaissance, as some have called it, of a village that was steadily declining.

Sewers are particularly important when it comes to development, as cesspools and individual septic systems are limited in terms of how much waste they can hold. They also have to be pumped regularly. Because of that, the Suffolk County Health Department often limits restaurant capacities, along with the ability to turn dry-use parcels into wet uses. With a sewer system hooked up to a sewer plant, many of those limitations are lifted.

On the South Fork, Sag Harbor is the only village with a sewage treatment plant—though both Southampton Village and Westhampton Beach Village are taking a hard look at adding sewers, primarily to boost capacity in their business districts. Southampton has actually outlined plans for a $33 million system serving downtown.

But Mr. White also was correct when he said that Southampton Village is not destitute—it isn’t in the slightest what Patchogue was like as recently as 10 years ago.

Still, Mayor Mark Epley, along with mayors from other municipalities in the region, are looking nearly 40 miles to the west for inspiration when it comes to creating sewer districts—and finding it in Patchogue.

“There was a lot of economic growth down there. You saw a lot of really good restaurants. There are a lot of professionals who moved there, and a lot of second- and third-story office buildings,” Mr. Epley said. “Mayor [Paul Pontieri] has been a driving force that made that happened, and is being recognized across Long Island.”

Once Upon A Sewer

When Mr. Pontieri was elected mayor of Patchogue in 2004, the village was, more or less, on its last leg.

“Main Street was about 50 percent vacant … so it was pretty much just basically empty,” said the mayor, clad in a bright orange sweater, in a recent interview in his village office. Behind him hung a photo of a sketch of New Village at Patchogue, which opened on Main Street in 2014.

Back in 2004, Swezey’s, the iconic department store that brought in hundreds of shoppers daily, had shuttered. Blighted properties had become the typical streetscape. Neighborhoods were sprinkled with overcrowded multi-family houses. And one particularly troubling boarding facility at the end of South Ocean Avenue was the home of several registered sex offenders.

“We would have to put a public safety officer at one of the bus stops, because it was next to a deli, just in the morning when the kids came out, because you had all sorts of weird people kind of hanging out there,” Mr. Pontieri said. “It was destroying the neighborhood.”

But that all changed. And, surprising as it might be, the key was new sewers.

Sewer lines have been running under the streets of Patchogue since 1907, with their contents treated at a sewer plant off Hammond Street and discharged to the Patchogue River, which runs through the village and empties in the Great South Bay. The problem was the system’s capacity, which was limited.

In 1986, when Mr. Pontieri was first appointed to the Village Board, the plant expanded its capacity, going from processing 250,000 gallons of wastewater per day to 500,000 gallons per day—a move by then-Mayor Norman Lechtrecker that Mr. Pontieri referred to as “planning ahead,” adding capacity to encourage growth.

So, when Mr. Pontieri took office for the village’s top post, he also took a page or two from Mr. Lechtrecker’s book and began to plan ahead himself.

In 2005, he engaged H2M Architects and Engineers, the Melville-based firm that did the 1986 upgrade, to renovate the plant. About six years and $11 million later, the upgrade was completed, and to this day the plant includes features such as ultraviolet disinfection and grit removal, and can also process up to 800,000 gallons of wastewater per day.

“We’ve also built it in a way … so that it can be easily expanded if we need to,” Mr. Pontieri said, explaining that the plant will most likely increase to a capacity of 1.2 million gallons per day in the future, to accommodate the village’s growth. “It’s about planning ahead. It’s not about fixing the today problem.”

While the plant was being upgraded, village officials quickly got to work on Mr. Pontieri’s vision. Construction on new housing units was in full swing, vacancies on Main Street were being filled, and talks with Brookhaven Town about extending the sewer lines into the hamlet of East Patchogue were under way.

That vision is now a reality—since 2004, dozens of new retailers, restaurants and bars have opened, and the downtown business district, along with the village’s economy, is thriving. And about 100,000 gallons of the sewer plant’s capacity is reserved for East Patchogue properties that are actually outside the village borders. Businesses are not mandated to hook into the new system, but they have the option of doing so as growth demands it.

But Mr. Pontieri stressed that economic development was not the only driving force behind the sewer plant upgrade—it’s also about making room for more apartments downtown, a key part of the equation.

“Sewers give people opportunities to do other things, especially in terms of restaurants. Economic development is what will come out of it, and it’ll give opportunities for people to use their properties in a different manner,” he said. “But I think there’s an environmental issue that you have to look at.

“The critical thing to remember,” the mayor added, “is we can talk about all of the economic growth that you can have, and all of those other things. But economic growth only happens if you have people—if you have people living there, and you have people sustaining themselves there.”

‘Feet On The Street’

As Mr. Pontieri put it, Patchogue needed “feet on the street” for his vision of a lively, bustling village to be successful.

And what better way to put those feet on the street than to build housing projects in close proximity to Main Street—four housing projects, to be exact.

There’s Copper Beech Village, a mix of about 80 affordable and market-rate townhouses, for which construction began in 2006, marking the beginning of Patchogue’s transformation.

The River Walk, a condominium community, first opened in 2014 and, when completed, will include 163 luxury units that are also within walking distance from the Long Island Rail Road.

New Village at Patchogue also opened in 2014 and consists of 291 luxury apartments right at the intersection known as the Four Corners, where North Ocean Avenue crosses over Main Street and becomes South Ocean Avenue. At the street level, New Village includes retail spaces, some of which are still seeking tenants, and there is also an underground parking garage for residents.

And then there is the Artspace Patchogue Lofts, Mr. Pontieri’s proudest accomplishment when it comes to housing: 45 affordably priced units, ranging from $890 to $1,570 per month, depending on income level, leased specifically to renters with jobs in the arts and entertainment industries who work in the village. The mixed-use property also boasts two art galleries and is home to the Patchogue Arts Council and the Plaza Cinema and Media Arts Center.

Artspace has become part of the village’s arts and entertainment district, anchored by the historic Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts. Throw in the Emporium—a music venue that also serves as a restaurant, bar, beer garden and nightclub—along with 89 North, another music venue, all of which opened thanks to the plant upgrade, and Patchogue is entertaining as many as 2,500 people on a Friday or Saturday night.

And that’s not including the other diners, drinkers and dancers at nearby hotspots on Main Street, to which the people in the music venues then flock once their shows finish.

It all comes full circle, Mr. Pontieri explained.

“It only happens because we built the housing to draw the people, to make downtown successful,” he said. “The thing that I knew was: First, to be successful, you had to have people on Main Street—feet on the street. But you’re not going to have feet on the street without a sewer plant to be able to build what you need to build.”

And many of the projects came at virtually no cost to the village, as developers provided the funds to run sewer lines to their construction sites. Those funds, known as “key money,” allow the village to charge developers a usage rate per gallon, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.

For instance, a senior housing community outside of the village, the Vineyards at Blue Point, ran a sewer line from that property to Patchogue’s plant. And the boardinghouse at the end of South Ocean Avenue, where registered sex offenders lived, is now a 63-unit apartment complex, because developers came in and paid for a line to run to that property.

Southampton Village officials have stressed the need for more affordable housing and how, with a sewer district in place, they could possibly achieve that, since it would allow for new sewer taps necessary to add apartments downtown. Restoring many of the second-floor apartments on Main Street—which, by their nature, would be more likely to be affordable for year-round residents—is another task that only a sewer plant would permit at this point, they have said.

“You want to have affordable housing opportunities for young people to come out here,” Mr. Epley said. “You realize that many people who are young professionals, who are schoolteachers, police officers, even people at the hospital … the idea is to get young people who work in our community, who contribute to our community, who are volunteers in the ambulance department and the fire department … to give them opportunities. And that’s what really has been one of my focuses, is to try to do that. And when you have that, then it adds year-round vitality to your business district.”

Not to mention a decrease in traffic. Mr. Epley has often said that by having more affordable housing options available for people who commute from the west, the traffic on Sunrise Highway and County Road 39 coming into the village probably wouldn’t be so drastic—and Mr. Pontieri agreed.

He knows firsthand. Although he lives and works in Patchogue, his wife, Mary, happens to serve as the district clerk in the Southampton School District, commuting about 40 minutes to and from work each day. That trip is even longer when traffic picks up in the spring—something those who commute from the west know all too well.

“If you’re able to build housing for some of those people that live here but would like to live there, so they can work there, maybe you’ll lessen some of the traffic,” Mr. Pontieri said. “If you’re going to be dependent on your workforce coming from west, coming to the east … it’s going to be a very difficult place.”

An Environmental Benefit

Like Southampton has Lake Agawam, Patchogue has the Patchogue River, the cleanup of which was a priority of village officials when upgrading the sewer plant years ago.

Before the upgrade, the river was in bad shape. It was contaminated with chlorine, a wastewater treatment mechanism, as well as nitrogen, and fish kills happened often. The sewer plant, in particular, was considered the source of the river’s problems.

“That plant was in constant violation. The violations were through the roof,” said former Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister, who now serves as the founder and president of the nonprofit organization Defend H2O. “They had some significant violations that were persistent—month in, month out.”

But with the renovations that came with Patchogue’s plant upgrade in 2011 also came an improvement in the treated wastewater that discharges into the river. According to H2M Architects and Engineers, the plant’s average nitrogen loading level has reduced by 80 percent, from 47.5 pounds per day to less than 9 pounds per day. The result? Visibly cleaner water, along with more wildlife in the river.

“Every year, there’s a snapper tournament. Normally, kids get 15 or 20, 30 of them,” Mr. Pontieri said. “The following year [after the plant was upgraded], they were probably double that number. And the year after that, it doubled again.”

Scientists agree, although data to quantify that improvement have not been gathered yet.

“There are signs of water quality improvement in the Patchogue River, which had formerly experienced low or no oxygen conditions, and fish kills,” said Dr. Christopher Gobler, a marine science professor at Stony Brook University who is also going to conduct a study of Lake Agawam to coincide with Southampton’s efforts to create a sewer district. “There have been historical algal blooms, anoxia and fish kills. We have not observed this during the past two years or so.”

“There are absolute benefits to the Patchogue River,” Mr. McAllister added. “I know the upgrades have improved the levels of denitrification.”

As for the Great South Bay, into which the Patchogue River flows, the scientists said that not much of a difference can be seen just yet.

“That growth, it has a nitrogen load to it,” Mr. McAllister said, referring to the increased density in Patchogue. “There’s a line where the benefits to an upgraded plant are no longer realized because the population, or the toilet flushing, is more significant. For economic development, it’s been a very positive thing, and it was the responsible thing to take a [polluted] plant offline. But at what point do you negate the treatment of sewage?”

State officials, and Governor Andrew M. Cuomo in particular, have been investing millions of dollars into helping Patchogue’s sewer system grow in hopes of improving nitrogen removal.

In October 2014, in an effort to strengthen coastal resiliency against storms, the state awarded the village $18 million to cover the cost of connecting 650 properties to the sewer plant, a move that, over time, is expected to reduce nitrogen loading in the river by an additional 25 percent.

Also in 2014, Patchogue received $1.4 million in grants to fund a $2.8 million project that will connect 55 residential properties to the sewer system, as those properties, which are all near the Great South Bay, had outdated septic tanks. The $11 million upgrade in 2011 was paid for with $8 million in grants.

Frank Russo, senior vice president at H2M—he is also heading Southampton Village’s sewer proposal and has been working with Mr. Pontieri for decades—has stressed that obtaining such grants is key in funding sewer projects. He, along with Mr. Epley and Village Planning Commission Chairman Paul Travis, have made the point several times to Southampton residents, who have argued that the proposed $33 million sewer system will not clean up Lake Agawam, as the problem is mostly phosphorus.

“I’ve never seen this like this in 30 years, where environmental grants are being given out to eliminate archaic cesspools. So why not take advantage of that now?” Mr. Russo said, noting that Southampton’s wastewater treatment plant will be the first one on Long Island to also remove phosphorus. “Because, sooner or later, those cesspools, with the rising tide, they’re going to be flat in water. I mean, how can you possibly protect the bay at that point? The only alternative is sewers. And that’s how we presented it to the state, through the economic development—and, lo and behold, the village ends up with a $1.4 million [grant]. Why? The village demonstrated that this project was good for the environment by removing nitrogen.”

“It does what you want it to do—it saves the environment,” Mr. Pontieri said. “The people can flush [wastewater]. They don’t care where it goes. But somebody’s got to worry about it.

“Mayor Epley, he understands that,” Mr. Pontieri continued. “That it’s not just, ‘Yeah, we can do a lot of things on Main Street.’ But if we don’t take care of the future … you don’t take care of the environment … what, do you want to have a cesspool in the middle of your village? That’s what it’ll become, I guess.”

A Model For Others

Patchogue Village has essentially become the textbook example of what can be achieved with a sewer system in place.

Both Mr. Pontieri and Mr. Russo often share how Patchogue made it happen with mayors of other Long Island villages that seek to establish sewer districts themselves, including Mr. Epley and Westhampton Beach Mayor Maria Moore.

While Ms. Moore said Westhampton Beach’s “needs and concerns differ from those of Patchogue,” she said the tour she and the rest of the Village Board received when they visited the village and its sewer plant “was very informative, and helped us to better understand the workings of the treatment process.”

Both Mr. Epley and Mr. Russo acknowledged that the amount of growth in Patchogue will not happen on the same scale in Southampton—zoning laws won’t allow it. But Mr. Russo said a sewer system will at least help the village stretch its legs, and reach its full potential.

“It can be whatever it wants to be at that point. But, right now, it can’t be what it wants to be,” he said. “And then you got the issue of the lake. They’re not mutually exclusive—they’re joined at the hip.”

Mr. Epley said that he would ultimately like to see the sewer district help with filling in the vacancies on Windmill Lane and Nugent Street, as well as bringing back the apartments above the businesses on Main Street and Jobs Lane.

“I like first-floor retail or restaurants, and then having housing on the second floor. I would like to see multiple-use opportunities for a site, and that’s limited now,” he said, pointing specifically to the building at the corner of Windmill Lane and Hill Street, which has remained vacant for years. “There’s very few uses that can be done with that building. They need to do something with it, and a big component of that, really, is sewers, and the limitations around it.

“We don’t want that kind of growth,” Mr. Epley added, referring to the growth that Patchogue saw. “That was very necessary for their community, and we’re really in a different position. They really had an area that really needed some significant revitalization, and we’re kind of different on that.”

“There’s so much value in it,” Mr. Pontieri said of a sewer project, returning again to his key point: it’s about apartments and the environment as much as businesses. “The value goes beyond what people think it is—now you can have restaurants and bars. It’s well beyond that.

“And if that’s what people focus on,” he continued, “then they’re losing sight of the bigger picture.”

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Mark, we don't want to be a patchogue. This is Southampton, we need retail shops, not real estate offices. We are losing it, maybe look to Easthampton as a model???
By knitter (1941), Southampton on Feb 3, 16 10:25 AM
2 members liked this comment
If there is an opportunity for a sewer, a municipality would be foolish not to explore it. The restrictive Board of Health requirements make it difficult for ANY new business to change a use. Proper zoning and smart planning can tone down or increase the kind of establishments that go into the sewer district. The alternative is more vacancy and less of a choice. However, I do believe that is what some people want. The school district is so small that losing commercial establishments shouldn't ...more
By The Real World (368), southampton on Feb 3, 16 11:33 AM
Nice article, very touchy feely. The reality is, the poor element still exists in Patchogue. I dare you to walk the street at 2AM. Not saying you should be out that late but those folks are still there. As for those venues, come back in 6 months and the majority of the businesses will close and maybe new ones will open. Survival of the fittest? Oh Yes, about those affordable cubby holes. The majority are based upon income...meaning, you guessed it. Section 8 or Mitchell Lama Style or some other ...more
By JoeGisondi (1), on Feb 3, 16 11:46 AM
1 member liked this comment
The other reality is that the bars and restaurants draw in the public who quickly leave when they are done. Living in many areas within the village lines means you get to hear much of the Alive after Five noises from your own backyard and you get firsthand experiences with the traffic and parking problems it creates. And with so many places to eat and drink, you also have a good opportunity to walk a good distance from your parked car to any of those locations, something that older folks and those ...more
By crankypaul (4), Patchogue on Feb 3, 16 4:20 PM
1 member liked this comment
There's a lot of ignorance and misinformation in your rant about Patchogue.

The people living in the housing are not comprised of "section 8" or "mitchell lama style" Yes, Cooper Beach is affordable housing based on income but it's filled with real local blue collar people who work within the community. You act like the new housing is a bunch of projects filled with drug addicts. There's no crime in those developments, they're filled with hard working families like you and me and New ...more
By Nature (2966), Southampton on Feb 3, 16 7:03 PM
2 members liked this comment
The mayor wants affordable housing above expensive retail, and some how thinks these residents will patronage the shops, and restaurants of the village. He also doesn't have one single shred of evidence the sewer will do anything for the Lake. Besides all of this his family built 120 units recently, and zero was affordable housing. This grinning flim flammer of a mayor I believe has another agenda, and it has to do with money.
By chief1 (2800), southampton on Feb 3, 16 6:23 PM
Is anyone as troubled as I am by the Press's utilization of 5-story Patchogue apartment house photos as a lead in to their sewer-district story? Combine that with the subhead, "Patchogue Village offers a glimpse of the changes new sewers can bring", implying that large 5-story apartment complexes are potentially in Southampton Village's future if sewers are constructed. Yet, in the very same article, the reporter states that "Southampton’s zoning laws will prevent six-story structures". Mr. ...more
By Rickenbacker (257), Southampton on Feb 4, 16 12:58 PM
1 member liked this comment
I'm not sure I understand the question, but: I think the point is that Patchogue has been referenced by many officials as showing the many changes that can result from sewers. In Patchogue, that included development like the larger complexes--something that would be specifically excluded by zoning rules in Southampton Village. It just seemed important to make that distinction in the story. I'm not sure where bias comes into play; if you see it, it was sincerely unintended.
By Joseph Shaw, Executive Editor (206), Hampton Bays on Feb 11, 16 7:42 PM
Like Patchogue? Move to Patchogue! No need for a sewer system in the Village to "help" Agawam, the only benefit will be to developers looking to increase population density.
By bigfresh (4666), north sea on Feb 4, 16 1:10 PM
Just because zoning doesn't allow a five story building today doesn't mean tomorrow it won't change. If you think there spending 35 million to add a couple restaurants I have a bridge to sell you.
By chief1 (2800), southampton on Feb 5, 16 7:01 AM
My point wasn't to be pro or con the sewer proposal, but to point out the obvious steering that the Press did with the photos. The article is actually well-written, and took a balanced approach to the story I thought. But the photo was a little tabloid, IMHO.

That said, and again, I am still watching as this develops to form an opinion one way or another, but the fact is that most of the septic systems in the business district are likely still 100- year old brick-lined cesspool systems, ...more
By Rickenbacker (257), Southampton on Feb 5, 16 9:28 AM
1 member liked this comment
Did you read the article? The mayor wants more density, and affordable housing for the village. He also wants to have more restaurants, and bars which means more traffic.
By chief1 (2800), southampton on Feb 5, 16 4:42 PM
It would not be the worst thing in the world, Patchogue village is very vibrant peaceful and a lot of fun
Feb 7, 16 6:42 PM appended by 27dan
sarcasm Marlin
By 27dan (2854), Shinnecock Hills on Feb 5, 16 6:42 PM
People come to the village for what it is, not what the Mayor wants to build. When he gets out will he sell real estate also???
When it turns into a patchogue the people will leave and find another quaint place to vacation and live. No people, no jobs...
By knitter (1941), Southampton on Feb 9, 16 2:38 PM