East Hampton Town Board Adopts Strict Septic Regs

East Hampton Town Hall

By Kathryn G. Menu

The East Hampton Town Board adopted legislation at its Tuesday work session in Montauk that will require all new construction projects, or substantial renovations, to install onsite waste treatment systems that reduce nitrogen flows into groundwater. The mandate will apply to both commercial and residential properties. With the passage of this new law, which becomes effective January 1, 2018, East Hampton Town officially has the strictest septic requirements in Suffolk County.

The town board also adopted a rebate program, aimed at incentivizing existing property owners throughout the town to replace their septic systems with low-nitrogen systems, offering up to $16,000 for all property owners, financed through the town’s Community Preservation Fund. In November, voters approved the extension of the CPF — a 2-percent real estate transfer tax used by the five East End towns to preserve open space, historic structures and recreational facilities — to 2050. Voters also agreed to allow the town to earmark 20 percent of CPF revenues annually for water quality projects. According to town officials, it is estimated the CPF will generate $150 million in East Hampton for water quality projects alone over the next 30 years.

The rebate program offers those who own existing homes in water protection districts, and those who have an annual income of no more than $500,000, financing up to $16,000 to cover the cost of installing one of the five low-nitrogen sanitary system approved by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, including the cost of removing an existing system.

Existing homeowners outside of those water protection districts are eligible for a rebate covering 75 percent of the cost of the new system, up to $10,000.

The new septic requirements do not go into effect until 2018. Any project that has approval from the Suffolk County Health Department by December 31, 2017 is exempt from the new legislation. The rebate program will go into effect earlier, with the town accepting applications as of September 1, in an effort to incentivize property owners who want to take advantage of that program before the new septic mandates go into effect.

Before Tuesday’s vote, a handful of residents last Thursday spoke about the rebate program and the new requirements for septic systems during public hearings on both laws. Chris Tucci, a contractor from East Hampton, expressed concerns that it would drive up the cost of construction for homes under $1 million — suggesting the mandate should be for homes over a specific value.

“It might be nice to consider a prorated system,” he said.

Britton Bistrian, of Land-Use Solutions, said she supported the legislation, but did ask the board to consider grandfathering in applications that have been filed with the health department and the town’s zoning board of appeals by the law’s effective date. Ms. Bistrian noted that many applications have been approved by the health department, but are not stamped until the town’s zoning board of appeals rules on a variance application — a process that can take several months. Only stamped approvals by the county health department will be exempt from the new septic requirements in East Hampton when the law goes into effect on January 1.

“You can be 100 percent done with the health department’s technical review, and you don’t have your approval until you hand them your ZBA approval,” she noted.

According to a press release issued by the town Tuesday afternoon, it has identified more than 19,000 individual existing septic systems eligible for rebates — including more than 12,500 parcels with antiquated cesspools, many of which are classified as failing. Traditional septic systems provide the largest source of nitrogen entering ground and surface waters throughout the town. Nitrogen pollution has led to algal blooms, bacterial contamination, beach closures, and closures for shellfishing.

While East Hampton Town is the first municipality to adopt strict standards for wastewater treatment that demand low-nitrogen systems, Southampton Town has introduced similar legislation, as has Suffolk County.

“Protecting water quality is our highest priority because our quality of life and economy depend on safe drinking water and pristine surface water,” said Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell in a press release following Tuesday’s vote.

“The Town Board has adopted the highest standard for water quality protection, and the rebate program should encourage property owners to replace failing waste systems with low-nitrogen alternatives,” said Deputy Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc.