By Stephen J. Kotz
Voters in Southampton and East Hampton towns will get the opportunity to weigh in on whether or not the Community Preservation Fund will be extended another 20 years with up to 20 percent of future revenues going to water-quality improvement projects.
Both the East Hampton and Southampton town boards agreed to put the measure on the November ballot this week.
In East Hampton, where Supervisor Larry Cantwell has described the mounting problem of water degradation as a cancer that could kill the town’s environment and the economy that depends upon it, the board unanimously approved the measure without a word of discussion on Thursday, August 18.
In Southampton, a handful of speakers urged the board to move forward on Tuesday before the board, also unanimously, signed off on the proposal.
“It’s what I call 20-20 vision,” said Dick Amper, the executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. He said voter approval of the referendum would extend and expand a hugely successful conservation program. He urged voters to support the measure and send a clear message to the rest of Long Island that water quality issues can be addressed.
If voters approve November’s referendum, the CPF, which is now set to expire in 2030, would be extended until 2050. The towns would also have the option of earmarking up to 20 percent of future receipts to water quality issues.
The CPF collects a 2-percent tax on most real estate sales, with the proceeds earmarked to preserve land, including farms, woods, and wetlands. Since its adoption by the five East End towns of Southampton, East Hampton, Shelter Island, Riverhead, and Southold, the CPF has collected more than $1 billion.
Elected officials have estimated the CPF could raise another $770 million in East Hampton and up to $1.5 billion in Southampton, if extended. That would permit as much as $154 million to be used for water quality projects in East Hampton and $300 million in Southampton.
While speakers at public hearings earlier this month lauded the success of the CPF in protecting open space, many said in its current form it had fallen short of one of its goals, protecting water quality.
Before asking voters to sign off on the extension, both towns were required to adopt water quality improvement plans outlining their strategies for dealing with a problem that has seen harmful algae blooms and spikes in nitrogen levels in ponds, harbors, and bays. A leading cause, experts say, are outdated septic systems that leach effluent into the groundwater. Both towns have proposed septic rebate programs to replace failing residential wastewater systems as part of their plans.
While all speakers supported the extension, Kevin McAllister, the director of the environmental organization, Defend H2O, urged the town to be cautious in how it allocates the money.
“Go slow with applications for the rebate program,” he said. “If it is not strategic, it is not going to have the effect we are all seeking.” He also urged the town to lobby Suffolk County, which oversees septic standards, to upgrade its own rules to prevent the grandfathering of failing systems in some cases.
But the measure received support from a number of people, including Glorian Berke, the co-president of the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons. She said the league would urge voters to support the referendum and said it would host an informational meeting on the issue at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton on September 19.