East Hampton Town saw a surge in the number of homeowners who took advantage of home septic system upgrade incentives in 2019 and has directed more than $1 million to larger-scale septic improvements and nitrogen-reduction projects around local water bodies.
Even so, the town could still end the year with millions in funding left on the table that was available for water quality improvement projects.
The town has thus far approved $724,000 in funding to help 51 homeowners replace the failing or outdated waste systems at their homes with advanced systems that scrub nitrogen from wastewater. The Town Board is expected to approve another $81,000 to be awarded to those who installed systems earlier this year before the town increased the grant allowance from $15,000 to $20,000 per property.
In 2018, just 18 systems were replaced with the aid of the program using only about $254,000 in CPF funding.
Town Environmental Analyst Melissa Winslow attributed the leap in participation in part to the septic replacement effort still getting on its feet in what is effectively only the second year of the program, as well as to efforts to spread awareness of the funding support programs available through the town and Suffolk County. She said the town expects to continue seeing the number of replacement grants climb.
“Many homeowners are making their way through the permitting and scheduling process to get their systems in — we now have over 200 approved eligibility applications,” Ms. Winslow said in an email this week. “The town, county and environmental groups have been doing a lot of outreach this year through presentations and community outreach to increase participation in the programs as well. We expect the upcoming changes to modify our incentive program will improve the process and make it easier for homeowners to install the low-nitrogen systems on their properties.”
The town is amending its septic replacement program to shift from a rebate model that required homeowners to pay for the installation of the new systems, which have averaged over $20,000, and be reimbursed by the town, to a grant program that will pay the vendors and installers of the systems directly.
The town has also been driving to bring more large-scale projects to the funding table as well. The Town Board recently dedicated about $396,000 for upgrades to the septic systems at the Springs School, West Lake Inn in Montauk and the Springs General Store. It has also already earmarked some $600,000 for projects addressing point-source influxes of nitrogen, like the installation of underground water filters known as permeable reactive barriers around Three Mile Harbor, and for the installation of filters. There is also the potential of a $1 million expenditure to purchase an as-yet-unidentified parcel of land for water quality improvement purposes.
But even so, town officials expect to be able to actually spend only about half of the more than $5 million available for water quality spending being used in 2019.
The 2016 reauthorization of the Community Preservation Fund, which draws its revenue from a 2 percent tax on most real estate transactions, allowed a town to dedicate up to 20 percent of its annual revenues to water quality-focused projects. But any of those funds that are not spent in a given year may not be banked for subsequent use on water quality and will be available for only the sort of land preservation efforts laid out in the original CPF bylaws.
Based on its 2018 CPF revenues, East Hampton Town had about $5 million available for it to use on water quality improvement.
Scott Wilson, the town land management and acquisition coordinator, who oversees the management of the CPF funding, said that shepherding major water quality projects to fruition has required a learning curve.
Among the challenges for the town has been determining which projects will deliver benefits in water quality improvement commensurate with their costs and determining how to fairly award grant funding so that all project proposals are treated fairly.
“Everyone thinks their project is great, but some are only removing small amounts of nitrogen … and everyone is having difficulty quantifying their overall ability to cleanse [nutrients from wastewater], so if you are on the committee, how do you determine how much to give out?” Mr. Wilson said. “It’s a balancing act and we are determining how we should tip the scales. At every meeting, it seems like we have a brand-new issue come up. It’s an evolving program.”
The town’s Water Quality Technical Advisory Committee, a panel of town officials and environmental experts that reviews and assesses each project the town will consider funding for, has developed some metrics for measuring proposals. One weighs them according to the amount of wastewater they produce in a day, as determined by the Suffolk County Department of Health. The amount is compared to the average “flow” of a single-family home, which is about 440 gallons per day, and awards have been given according to the relative multiples of that amount and based on the $20,000 per home available to homeowners.
But that metric is also too simplistic in some instances. Applicants like cash-strapped nonprofits, commercial businesses like restaurants that are open to the public, and projects at municipal facilities do not lend themselves to such balance tests quite so uniformly.
The Town Board on Tuesday said it wants to fund 100 percent of the costs of upgrading the septic systems connected to the public restrooms scattered throughout the town — including the $132,000 requested by East Hampton Village to replace septics at the Herrick Park bathrooms.
That project could probably be funded with money from the 2019 CPF rolls, Ms. Winslow said, since it is already designed and engineered.
Ms. Winslow told the board that the advisory committee recommended that the board also prioritize projects at the bathrooms at West Lake Drive in Montauk, Havens Beach in Sag Harbor Village, the Main Beach Bathing Pavilion, and Gin Beach, Lions Field and the Montauk Playhouse, and hopes to be able to get at least two of those projects funded and completed before next Memorial Day, with the others in the pipeline for after the summer.
Board members said they would also like to see the Fresh Pond beach bathrooms in Amagansett made a priority as well.
Councilman David Lys said that it only made sense for the town to fully fund the replacement of public restrooms since any costs not covered by the CPF would just have to be covered by town taxpayers anyway.
“The way I look at it, the CPF funding came from a townwide referendum, and the vast majority of residents supported spending this money on water quality,” he said. “For us to lead and show that the town is taking proactive measures, we should fully fund it, because if we don’t we’re still going to have to put the burden on taxpayers through bonding.”