Support for East Hampton Town’s Clean Water Initiative

Supervisor Larry Cantwell (center) and the East Hampton Town Board.
Supervisor Larry Cantwell (center) and the East Hampton Town Board.

By Christine Sampson

East Hampton Town moved a step closer last Thursday to updating the town code and setting up a rebate program for residents and businesses to use to upgrade old or failing septic systems known to be the source of the nitrogen polluting local waters.

At a June 15 public hearing, an overwhelming number of environmental groups endorsed the town’s proposals, which will direct money from the Community Preservation Fund — as authorized by voters in November — toward improving water quality in the town.

The town is still in the process of fine-tuning the details, but the current proposal would fund 100 percent of the cost of a new, low-nitrogen-producing septic system for residents in special water protection districts up to $16,000. Those who meet certain requirements in the scope of affordable housing programs would also be eligible for the same benefit. Residents elsewhere in town would qualify for rebates of up to 75 percent of the cost, not exceeding $10,000, and businesses would also qualify for rebates.

The Suffolk County Department of Health Services has defined “low nitrogen” levels as no more than 19 milligrams per liter, but has indicated it will go even lower, according to NancyLynn Thiele, assistant town attorney. The East Hampton Town Board is also considering a change in its law that would automatically mirror the county’s definition of low nitrogen when that decreases.

The need for the new systems would be triggered by factors such as new construction or substantial house renovations, Ms. Thiele said. “The ultimate goal for the town is for any septic systems to be installed to only be the low-nitrogen systems.”

Among the groups supporting the town’s efforts were the Group for the East End, the Nature Conservancy, Defend H20, and the Concerned Citizens of Montauk. Some of them, including the Eastern Long Island Surfrider Foundation chapter and the Accabonac Protection Committee, even offered the town their help in educating the public and promoting the rebate program.

“I couldn’t be happier to stand before you and support this,” Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End, said. “This is well thought through, addressing one of the critical needs and problems in our environment. It puts the money back in the [residents’] own pockets, and deservedly so.”

Some from the local business community asked the town board for changes to the proposals.

Peter Mendelman of Seacoast Enterprises, which owns several local marinas, encouraged the town to focus rebate eligibility in certain areas. “You need them in Springs, in Northwest, in Montauk and around Georgica Pond,” he said. “Think about where you put the rebates because even though 20 percent of the CPF is a lot of potential money, we’re going to need to stretch this money and put it where it pays the biggest payoffs.”

On Tuesday, town board member Peter Van Scoyoc, the measure’s sponsor. said the rebate legislation is almost ready to be passed, while the legislation setting up new low-nitrogen standards for septic systems will likely be adjusted some more.

“We basically have decided we’re going to take a deeper look at a couple of issues brought up at the public hearing,” he said, referring to business owners’ requests to grandfather in those projects that have already received county health department approvals and are already in the planning and zoning phases with the town, and other issues.

Southampton Town is not far behind East Hampton, Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said Tuesday. A bill is in the works to mandate phasing in low-nitrogen septic systems for residents who live within two-year watershed travel zones. A rebate program drawing on CPF money is also on the horizon.

“I feel very good about our law because it really is focused on the most critical parcels,” Mr. Schneiderman said.

It is unclear where Sag Harbor Village stands on mandating updates to old or failing septic systems, although officials in both towns have said Sag Harbor residents in their towns would be eligible for rebates. Mayor Sandra Schroeder could not immediately be reached for comment this week.