So you think you can build…

If your land is in the watershed it’s gonna cost a lot more than you think.

This comprehensive guide will help you understand what ‘NYC watershed’ means to your bottom line. ~ A real-life experience ~

(For Conesville and surrounding Watershed areas).

by Natasha & Fred Ruckel

Our Septic system went through many trials and tribulations relating to the approvals of our septic system proved to be more difficult costly then we were initially led to believe! Let us share our in-depth experiences in this matter….

Our land lies within the New York watershed*. Simply put, the water in this area feeds the drinking supplies for millions of New Yorkers (ourselves included). This means that any water on your land is subject to very strict standards.

Please use this ink to the watershed area in NY state: for other states we recommend that you visit your state Department of Environmental Conservation/Protection website.
*If you prefer the definition as created by the Commissioner of Health by Section 201(1)(I) of the Public Health Law, Appendix 75-A of Part 75 of the Administrative Rules and Regulations contained in Chapter II of Title 10 of the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules and Regulations of New York: “An area of drainage for a body of water that serves as a source of drinking water and for which watershed rules and regulations have been adopted by the commissioner”.

Read downloadable PDF called ‘Wastewater Treatment Standards’ section 75-A.1 (b) for more definitions.
Many of us love the idea of owning a river, stream or other watercourses. However, contrary to popular belief, these pretty watercourses located on your land, don’t not entitle you to do ‘whatever you want to do’ with them!
When you making your land selection for purchase, make sure that it isn’t riddled with watercourses. The restrictions put in place by the DEP clearly state that you cannot build, nor disturb (that includes using any heavy machinery) any land that falls within a one hundred feet radius of any watercourse.

A watercourse as defined by the Commissioner of Health is: “A visible path through which surface water travels on a regular basis. Drainage areas which contain water only during and immediately after a rainstorm shall not be considered a watercourse.”

Well…. we do appear to have several patches of water run-off on our land, which to the untrained eye appear not to be a defined ‘watercourse’. We suggest contacting your local DEP, so that they can clearly identify what they believe to be ‘official watercourses’. They have trained individuals who know what they are looking for. There is nothing worse, than building close to what seems just a water ‘run-off’, only to find out afterwards that it is so more than that. You will get more than a slap on the wrist; you could receive fines, be forced to remove the structure and who knows what else you could face?

Anyway, so back to your land purchase, once you have ascertained that it is in the watershed area and that your post-storm dribbles are in fact ‘defined watercourses’, and that you can’t build within one hundred feet of those, do you still have room to build your home?

Not so fast, I forgot to mention that you might need a well and septic system (that is of course, if like us, you have chosen to build away from the municipal water and sewage lines). The well and septic need space (we will talk about that shortly) remember, these can’t be located within one hundred feet of a watercourse either. Let’s add to our equation of total land required to build your home on: the well cannot be within one hundred and fifty feet of your septic system. Starting to run out of acreage? Well it doesn’t end here.

Let’s talk about septic systems here. Your septic system, (also referred to as the on-site wastewater treatment system) consists of a pipe that flows from your home into a septic tank. The size of the tank (usually buried underground) depends on the number of bedrooms in your home. Our home will have three-bedrooms, therefore our tank minimum capacity will be one thousand gallons and a minimum liquid area of twenty-seven square feet (refer to Table 3 from Commissioner of Health by Section 201(1)(I) of the Public Health Law, Appendix 75-A of Part 75 of the Administrative Rules and Regulations contained in Chapter II of Title 10 of the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules and Regulations of New York). Downloadable PDF ‘Wastewater Treatment Standards’

A septic tank is a big concrete box, (it can be fiberglass or polyethylene), into which your wastewater remains until it settles into layers. The solids form a layer of ‘sludge’; oil and grease rise to the surface as a layer of ‘scum’. Sludge and scum remain in the tank, whereas partially decomposed waste and wastewater leave the tank via a pipe to a distribution box. The distribution box disperses the liquid into the drainage field. (REMEMBER the word DRAINAGE FIELD because we will be talking more about these shortly, especially since they do take up extraordinary amounts of square feet).

When new wastewater enters the septic tank, older wastewater gets distributed in the drainage AKA leech field. Additional soil is required at the drainage field; the amount depends on the rate at which the soil drains (this is determined during the percolation test), and the amount of permeable soil type vs. rock and less permeable soil located at your site. Are you getting concerned now, because you seem to have more rock on your site then soil and foliage? Also keep in mind that you cannot put your septic field in an area of ‘standing water’ or ‘wetland’ either.
The drainage field plays an important part in the absorption and percolation of your wastewater. The soil treats the wastewater by draining/filtering any harmful bacteria, nutrients, chemicals and viruses.

In addition to the pipes, septic tank, distribution box, drainage field and additional soil required, you may have to also purchase a pump or a float switch to help facilitate the movement of wastewater from the septic tank to the drainage field.

We will definitely need to use a pump or float switch. We recently discovered that if you have a suitable area (i.e. one that is large enough with at least nineteen inches of permeable soil) to create a septic system on your land that is at least two hundred and fifty feet away from a watercourse, and then you have to use that instead. (I know – we did mention that your septic field had to be at least one hundred feet away from the ‘designated watercourse’, so-be-it, there are rules that supersede other rules)! And this one can’t be found in the Commissioner of Health by Section 201(1)(I) of the Public Health Law, Appendix 75-A of Part 75 of the Administrative Rules and Regulations contained in Chapter II of Title 10 of the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules and Regulations of New York. (Downloadable PDF called ‘Wastewater Treatment Standards’)

Unfortunately, that means that we have to dig a trench over eight hundred feet in length, to be able to locate our drainage field in the ‘designated preferred area’. How much will that cost? More! We have discovered though, that we can use the same trench as the one used to run our electrical line. The negative aspect here is that we will have to make a three feet wide trench to accommodate the required twelve inch distance between electric lines and sewage pipes.

OK – so there are several costs building up now, and the buildable area of land is shrinking, but it doesn’t stop there. Can you remember earlier, we talked about the area of the drainage field? When you summit your septic plan for approval by the DEP/DOH, you have to provide two locations. The first location will be the primary septic field. The second location is the reserve field. The reserve field is a back up, should your primary field fail in the future. However, you cannot disturb your secondary field that is to say, you can’t put anything onto it or do anything to it. So the real question here is how big a space do you need for your drainage fields? As previously mentioned this does depend on your soil percolation rate, amount of usable soil and also the number of bedrooms planned in your home.

We shall use our project as an example: We are planning on having three bedrooms; our soil percolation rate was measured at five minutes per inch. We had at least nineteen inches of usable soil, if not more. Our drainage field will have to be a minimum area of eighty by eighty feet, and so too does our reserve field. More details about percolation rates and absorption trench sizes can be found in Table 4A and 4B of the Commissioner of Health by Section 201(1)(I) of the Public Health Law, Appendix 75-A of Part 75 of the Administrative Rules and Regulations contained in Chapter II of Title 10 of the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules and Regulations of New York, downloadable PDF called ‘Wastewater Treatment Standards’.

So, at this point you must be really worried about having enough space to build your home and septic, while still having and enjoying those ‘pretty designated’ water courses on your plot.

A table of required separation distances from wastewater system components can be found in the PDF ‘Wastewater Treatment Standards’ Table 2.

Other important restrictions to note include ensuring that the designated primary and reserve fields are no more than fifteen percent in elevation or lower than the ten-year flood. As mentioned in on SECTION 75-A.4 point (1) of the PDF ‘Wastewater Treatment Standards’.

When our engineer originally submitted our ‘Septic Application’, we also discovered that he had omitted putting accurate contours at two feet intervals (as determined by NY licensed surveyor) onto the plans and layout. Consequently our submission was initially rejected and we had to pay for a Surveyor to conduct and plot thorough elevations from our home, the proposed septic field sites, well, pump tank, force lines and interceptor drains. (This is not cheap either so get quotes, shop around, but do budget for this early in the planning process). Dome engineering firms will include this in the cost estimate. Get a detailed estimate to be sure. Our cost was over one thousand two hundred additional dollars!

One other lesson of note!! We purchased three adjacent plots. If you, like us need to distribute your home and septic system over one or more of your plots you will be required to apply for an easement. We decided that it would be simpler to file our lots as one. (Again, remember to budget for the filing and legal fees related to this). This was an additional six hundred bucks.

The PDF that we have scanned called ‘Wastewater Treatment Standards’ is quite difficult to understand. You will require a certified engineer to design and plan your system according to your house size, soil type and permeability rates. We absolutely recommend that you get accurate delineation of your watercourses from the DEP as well a ‘pit and perc test’ performed in the presence of a DEP official and an engineer. They must be able to confirm that you have at least nineteen inches of usable soil, as well as a percolation rate better or equal to thirty minutes per inch – PRIOR TO PURCHASING YOUR PLOT (so as to avoid disappointment at a later date).

That just about covers everything other than ‘storm water management’. So we should mention that too. We were under the told by our land seller, that you could clear one acre per plot for the home site, driveway, garden, septic field etc. However we were misinformed! (We were also told that we weren’t in the watershed area, but that’s a story for another day). If you clear more than one acre (it doesn’t matter how many plots you have apparently), you are required to file a ‘Notice of Intent’ with NYSDEC and prepare a ‘Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan’ – AKA – SWPPP. If you disturb more than two acres that occur on slopes of fifteen percent or greater or within one hundred feet of a watercourse a full SWPPP must be prepared and submitted to the DEP’s Storm water Design Review Section for review and approval.

There is much to learn along the way. Our best advice to contact your DEP representative, work closely with them, they will guide you and advise you about the best ways in how to pass your septic application. Also do get recommendations for a qualified engineer and surveyor to ensure that your submitted plans are to scale, properly annotated and designed. GOOD LUCK!