By Stephen J. Kotz
Voters in the five East End towns on Tuesday overwhelmingly supported a referendum extending the Community Preservation Fund for 20 years and allowing each town to earmark up to 20 percent of future proceeds to be used for water quality projects.
The measure passed by a 78-to-22-percent margin in East Hampton, an 80-to-20-percent margin in Southampton and Southold towns, a 75-to-25-percent margin in Riverhead and a 69-31-percent margin on Shelter Island.
Since its inception, the CPF, which collects a 2-percent tax on most real estate sales, has raised well over $1 billion for land preservation and saved more than 10,000 acres of land from development. With the extension to the year 2050, officials have estimated the program can raise another $1.5 billion in Southampton Town alone, with up to $300 million available for water quality, and $700 million in East Hampton, with about $150 million of that available for water quality.
“I can’t in my career remember a referendum that got an 80-percent approval,” said Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who sponsored both the original measure in 1999 and this year’s extension. “The public is well aware of the water quality problem we are having, and I think it has faith in the CPF.”
Although Mr. Thiele said he was “thrilled by the size of the victory,” he added that passage of the referendum was simply a first step. “The towns can’t do this by themselves,” he said. “We have to take this to the county, the state and the federal government and work on partnering with them.”
Officials have widely conceded that when the CPF was first launched nearly two decades ago, they believed preserving land alone would also help protect the groundwater and bays, harbors and ponds. But as pollution continued to grow, from failing home septic systems, road and farm runoff, and other sources, momentum grew to expand the scope of the CPF.
Each town that has approved the extension has compiled a list of eligible projects and will establish committees to review requests for funding. Those projects can range from septic rebate programs to small-scale sewage treatment plants.
“I’m very pleased that the community supports open space preservation and using some of this money for water quality and improvement projects,” said East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell. “I supported this referendum when it was first suggested” by Assemblyman Thiele. “It took a lot of work to pass it and now it will take a lot of work to implement it.”
“I’m not surprised to see it passed,” added Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. “Those who advocated for it did a great job of getting the message out.” He said the funding source would be “a great tool to improve the quality of our bays and harbors.”
“Now is the time to take steps to address water quality here. It’s absolutely vital for our health and our economy,” said Kevin McDonald, the conservation finance and policy director for The Nature Conservancy on Long Island, in a release. “This measure will fund new technologies and practices that will reduce the amount of nitrogen entering our local waters. It will help residents and businesses replace polluting septic systems and cesspools with new denitrifying systems.”
“On Election Day, every East End resident won a major victory with the passage of the expanded Community Preservation Fund,” said Bob DeLuca, the president of the Group for the East End, in a release. “This remarkable program has already saved thousands of acres of forests, farms and wetlands, and by extending the fund, we have guaranteed the protection of even more critical lands and created the first sustaining regional fund for critically needed water quality improvement projects throughout the region.”