Editorial: New Priorities

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The Community Preservation Fund, established in each of the five East End towns in 1999, has raised $1.343 billion and protected more than 10,000 acres of land from development over the past two decades.

The program, which is supported by a 2-percent tax on most real estate transactions, has been a stunning success. Not only has it raised millions of dollars for open space preservation without putting a burden on local taxpayers, it has made the people driving the East End’s second-home boom — the buyers of real estate — pay for the acquisition of land to protect it from sprawl.

Based on programs launched in the 1980s on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, the CPF had to be authorized by the state legislature and okayed by each town’s voters, who time and again have approved and reapproved their local programs by margins of 60 and 70 percent.

But now that only a fraction of the East End land mass remains undeveloped and unprotected, what’s the point of the CPF now? As Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele noted this week in a presentation to the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee, water quality is the pressing issue of the day.

He noted that environmental planners 20 years ago believed that preserving open space would protect the East End’s groundwater. But spot pollution from bad practices over many decades is popping up all around the region and a sheen of nitrogen from inadequate and decrepit septic systems is degrading the Peconic Bay estuary.

Thanks to forward thinking environmentalist and local officials like Mr. Thiele — who was one of the authors of the CPF, shepherding its enabling legislation through the Assembly — voters in each town were asked in 2016 to double the life of the program to 2050 and allow up to 20 percent of its revenue to support efforts to improve surface and groundwater quality.

Maybe that percentage should have been higher. Simmering ideas for how to allocate that sizeable pot of dollars are beginning to boil, with Mr. Thiele and Senator Kenneth P. LaValle (Mr. Thiele’s partner supporting the CPF in Albany) stirring the pot by pushing through one bill this summer that allows CPF money to be used to fund the extension of public water mains wherever private wells have been polluted by toxic chemicals, as seen in communities like Wainscott and Quogue.

Another bill they championed allows towns to use CPF money to make interest-free loans to homeowners to pay for modern nitrogen-reducing septic systems, with homeowners repaying the CPF through annual principle payments added to the tax bills.

As noted by Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman at a recent Town Board meeting, another potential use of CPF money is to support the ongoing Peconic Bay Estuary Program, the function of which is to support efforts to protect and improve water quality in the bay system through collaboration with public and private stakeholders as well as water quality monitoring, research and education. Its work has included developing a habitat restoration plan for the estuary.

As Assemblyman Thiele told the Bridgehampton CAC, “Water quality has become the biggest environmental issue out here.” Perhaps the biggest aspect of that problem is groundwater pollution from past land uses and nitrogen loading in the bay system from thousands of inadequate septic systems.

The region has taken a smart step in extending the CPF and setting aside some of its revenues for water quality programs. But priorities need to be brought into focus. A broad-based and coherent regional management policy must be developed to target the East End’s most serious water pollution problems. More should be done by all five towns, for example to aggressively encourage homeowners to replace inadequate septic systems. The CPF, if targeted wisely, is the right mechanism to fund the salvation of our bays and our aquifer.

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