C.P.F. Eyed for Water Works

Discussions in East Hampton and Southampton of the infrastructure needed to deal effectively with wastewater and avoid further degradation of ground and surface waters from nitrogen and other pollutants have inevitably led to eyes on the large dollar sign in the room: the enormous cost of sewering systems, treatment plants, and the like.

So eyes have turned to a potential source of ongoing, substantial revenue: the Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund, approved in 1998 by New York State to raise money for land preservation in the five East End towns through a 2-percent real estate transfer tax.

New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., an author of the C.P.F. legislation, addressed the question of whether the fund could or should be tapped to pay for initiatives to protect ground and drinking water in an interview last week.

Mr. Thiele said he supports and is exploring the idea. While the preservation fund was established to bankroll land purchases, and that is expected to remain its goal, “it’s become rather obvious,” said Mr. Thiele, that maintaining pure drinking and surface waters is essential to preserving “community character,” a main tenet of the community preservation program.

“While in the ’70s and ’80s, it was land preservation, now it’s water preservation,” the assemblyman said. “I think that water quality is the issue of this decade,” he said. A decline in quality and the pollution of East End surface waters used for fishing and swimming, and of the aquifers that provide drinking water, “would certainly undermine not only the environment, but the economy,” he said.

Projects like those being discussed in East Hampton — such as the neighborhood wastewater treatment systems that have been proposed by the town’s wastewater management consultant as a solution to septic system pollution — are costly. With federal grants unlikely and limited state money available, they are “certainly beyond” the means of local governments alone, Mr. Thiele said.

Mr. Thiele has already had informal discussions with members of the coalition of environmental and business groups that backed the preservation fund legislation and has talked about the idea with the supervisors of the five participating East End towns.

Under a preliminary proposal developed by Mr. Thiele, the voter-approved term of the preservation fund and its 2-percent real estate transfer tax funding mechanism could be extended beyond its current 2030 expiration, through 2050.

The state law authorizing the preservation fund program would be amended to allow the towns to spend a percentage of the preservation money on capital projects related to water quality, such as alternative septic systems, wastewater treatment facilities, marine sewage pumping stations, and so on.

According to Mr. Thiele’s projections, revenue into East Hampton Town’s preservation fund during the additional 20 years could reach $415 million. Of that, $74 million could be set aside for water quality projects; $300 million would fund continued land purchases, and the remainder, up to $40 million, could be used for land stewardship, as a portion of the fund is now used.

Assemblyman Thiele said last week that he will continue discussions with all involved throughout the fall and, if a consensus is reached to pursue a change to the preservation fund law, would begin efforts in January to get an amendment passed by the State Legislature.

The final step, he said, would be a public referendum authorizing the extension of the preservation fund tax, which, if all goes well, could take place on Election Day next fall.