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Hamptons Life

Apr 12, 2019 4:14 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Septic Retaining Walls To Be Enforced Same Way As Fences

Septic system retaining walls are being installed in areas where the groundwater is three to four feet below the surface. GREG WEHNER
Apr 12, 2019 4:14 PM

After considering legislation that would exempt walls around septic systems from regulations that pertain to walls and fences, Southampton Town officials decided on Tuesday, April 9, to enforce the code the way it is already written.

Under the current town code, septic system retaining walls are regulated like any other wall and fence—which will be the case going forward unless a new law is written that specifically addresses such walls.

Residents on Cold Spring Point pointed out poor oversight of the walls to town officials when a set of 6- to 7-foot-tall retaining walls was approved along property lines in their neighborhood.

Cold Spring Point Road homeowner Anthony Aufiero told Town Board members in February that a retaining wall approved on his neighbor’s property would abut their shared property line and strip away his ability to plant a buffer. He also said the walls create an eyesore and a hazard.

“I understand the concern,” Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said during the April 9 Town Board meeting. “This came to us because the building inspector was allowing 6-foot or 8-foot walls at the property line that were necessitated by these sanitary systems—at least that’s what was presented—and that was creating this horrible aesthetic for the neighbors and concerns about flooding and changing the water movements and all kinds of concerns. Nobody wants to live next to a barracks.”

The retaining walls are constructed around septic systems, including new nitrogen-reducing systems that the Suffolk County Department of Health Services approved. The county and the town offer incentives to those who live near waterways and want to upgrade their septic systems.

To prevent water from leaching into the systems, they must be at least 2 or 3 feet above groundwater. So, walls are put up around the septic system in the shape of a box and then covered with fill.

These walls, according to town code, are supposed to be regulated the same way walls around tennis courts are, with the same restrictions. But up until recently they have not been subject to the same scrutiny, because once the County Department of Health Services approves plans for a septic system, the Southampton Town Planning Department has allowed the walls to move forward.

Assistant Town Attorney Katie Garvin told Town Board members that Michael Benincasa, the town’s chief building inspector, is beginning to look at the retaining walls much more closely after concerns were brought forward. She said Mr. Benincasa looked at three retaining walls recently, and only one was related to a septic system. He determined that the wall was unnecessarily high, Ms. Garvin said, and thought maybe it was being used to elevate the grade of the yard. So, Mr. Benincasa sent the application back to the applicant for revisions.

Ms. Garvin also said she met with the County Department of Health Services to get guidance on how to move forward in terms of wall height.

“I point blank said: ‘What is the minimum requirement?’ And they said: ‘We can’t tell you that. We have no idea. We have to look at the property and look at the groundwater and look at the system,’” Ms. Garvin said. “They said they are more than happy to work with the town.”

She recommended to the Town Board members that they implement the town code the way it is currently written, regulating retaining walls like all walls and fences in the town, and if the board wants to explore other avenues, that she would help.

“There’s no room in the [legislation] that I drafted to really put in anything other than exempting them or not exempting them,” Mr. Garvin added.

Under the current regulations, 4-foot walls are permitted in the front yard.

Town Board member Christine Scalera said she would like to see that dropped to 2 feet, and if a homeowner wanted to go higher, they should have to show necessity.

Mr. Schneiderman said he was concerned about walls that were 4 feet high, because when filled with dirt or sand on one side, the opposite side would have a drop off of 4 feet. Additionally, a fence would have to be placed on top of the wall to prevent someone from falling 4 feet, making the total height of the structure at least 8 feet.

Still, he was on board to move forward with enforcing the code as it is written, where 4 feet is the maximum height. Anything higher, he said, would require a variance.

Town Board member John Bouvier said he would like the board to do a deeper dive into the code.

“It disincentivizes the installation of I/A systems, which I don’t want to see happen,” he said of innovative and alternative onsite wastewater treatment systems. “I think we can do better with the code we have.”

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