When a predicted flood last week didn't reach Biblical proportions, Phoenicia residents breathed a sigh of relief. The tiny hamlet in Shandaken has borne the brunt of much of the region's flood damage over the fall and winter, with back-to-back floods in October and December inundating Main Street.
But the recent rains have caused disaster for one local business: Sweet Sue's, a popular Phoenicia restaurant whose decadent pancakes have earned it a devoted following.
Last Friday afternoon, in the middle of lunch service, inspectors from the Ulster County Health Department ordered Sweet Sue's to close on the spot. According to the department, the restaurant's septic system had failed, a casualty of the heavy rains and waterlogged ground.
Kevin DuMond, director of environmental services for the health department, said that because of all the recent flooding in the hamlet, he decided to take a close look at Phoenicia's Main Street businesses while the waters were high.
"Last time, the flooding was literally running down the street. So we wanted to stay on top of what was happening," he said. "The bottom line is, you can't have sewage running down the main street of Phoenicia. So we took the appropriate action."
Three days later, it appears that Sweet Sue's is still closed, and it is unclear when the restaurant will open again. Phone calls to the business yesterday and today went unanswered, and the Watershed Post was unable to contact owner Sue Taylor.
Shandaken supervisor Rob Stanley said that it could be some time before the restaurant will be able to reopen.
"Historically, the problem there is that the entire area is saturated with groundwater until a couple of weeks after the flood," he said. "They are out of business until they can fix that issue. And it's not only the loss of the economy for Phoenicia, but all the people she has working for her. They're out of a job."
DuMond said that Taylor is in a difficult position: Her lot on Main Street, nestled between the Phoenicia Pharmacy and the Key Bank, is too small for the restaurant to expand its septic system.
"It's not only an issue for Sweet Sue's. It's an issue for the whole downtown," said DuMond. "She can't expand her septic system because there's nowhere to go. And that's a problem throughout Phoenicia."
Located on the Esopus Creek in the New York City watershed, the hamlet of Phoenicia has been offered a $17 million grant by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to construct a sewage treatment plant. But fierce town politics and worries about future maintenance costs have held up the project, and it is unclear when or if the plant will ever be built. Water quality testing done by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) over the last few years shows that runoff from the hamlet is polluting the creek.
Phoenicia has already lost one local business over sewer issues; the Maverick Health Center relocated to Boiceville this winter rather than upgrade its Phoenicia facility because it could not expand its septic system.
Stanley said he would contact the Catskill Watershed Corporation to see if the agency could help Sweet Sue's. Under the terms of a 1997 watershed agreement, the CWC uses money from the DEP to make grants and loans to local businesses and homeowners for septic improvements in the watershed.
Last August, Taylor received a letter from the state DEC citing her restaurant for operating without a required wastewater discharge permit after a 2007 expansion.
DuMond stressed that Sweet Sue's woes could befall any business in Phoenicia, and that the restaurant was not being singled out for enforcement.
"I know Sue," he said. "She doesn't want this problem. She wants it fixed. It's hurting her business and she's losing money."
Photo from Sweet Sue's listing on Yelp.com.