Feeling Flush, Town Targets Waste

Rebates of up to $15,000 to remove old and failing cesspools near waterways
The owners of property in sensitive environmental areas who replace outdated wastewater systems could be eligible for rebates from East Hampton Town of up to $15,000. Jason Biondo

Property owners in East Hampton Town could receive rebates of up to $15,000 toward replacing failed or inadequate septic waste systems if a proposal now being considered by officials goes ahead.

Money for the program would come from the 20-year extension of the community preservation fund 2-percent tax on most real estate sales, which was approved by voters in November.

Speaking at an East Hampton Town Board meeting on Tuesday, NancyLynn Thiele, one of the town’s lawyers, described the draft of a two-track effort to eliminate cesspools and increase protections for drinking water and the town’s bays, harbors, and creeks.

 Rebates would be tiered equally for commercial and residential properties, and properties in East Hampton Village and on the East Hampton side of Sag Harbor would be eligible. As proposed, the highest rebates — 100 percent of the construction cost of a new, low-nitrogen system to a maximum of $15,000, would be available for sites that are, for the most part, designated as water protection districts.

If the measure were approved by the town board all new construction would have to have a low-nitrogen sanitary system as would any business or house undergoing substantial expansion. Substantial expansion would  be defined in the final law, Ms. Thiele told the board, and it could be an increase of more than half of a house’s floor area or estimated value.

“New construction, you have got to have new technology,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said at one point during Tuesday’s discussion.

Roughly 12,000 parcels with waste-leaking cesspools exist in the town, and more than 6,000 are adjacent to bodies of water, would have priority for funding, according to Mr. Cantwell. “Untreated water seeps into the ground, into groundwater, and flows into the waters of our town,” he said.

Outside of the high-priority areas, property owners in a second tier who replace cesspools could get up to half the cost of replacement, up to $10,000. For residents with modest incomes, rebates of up to three-quarters of the cost could be available.

A third tier, for properties that do not have old-fashioned cesspools but whose systems do not meet current standards, would reimburse property owners for up to a quarter of the cost of repair or replacement, with a $5,000 maximum.

Ms. Thiele said the town program might initially follow the Suffolk Department of Health Services’ dissolved nitrogen standard of 19 milligrams per liter. As more new sanitary waste systems become available and are approved by the department, she said, that standard could fall to 10 mg. per liter. She also said that property owners would have to provide the county with a maintenance and inspection agreement in order to get town rebates. “The systems will only remove nitrogen if they are maintained,” she said.

According to Joe Densieski of Wastewater Works in Riverhead, the town’s proposed 100-percent rebate might not cover all of the costs associated with installing a low nitrogen system. Though the day of construction bill could be as low as $12,000 for the system itself, surveys, permits, and engineering fees could add as much as $3,000. A required twice-a-year maintenance plan and inspections of filters, sludge levels, and electrical components would add $750 for three years, he said in a phone interview yesterday.

If toilet and household drains were only flowing to an aged cinderblock cesspool, a new drain field of cast concrete rings would add another $3,000 to $3,500 to the project. “Some jobs come out more; some come out less,” Mr. Densieski said.

Jeremy Samuelson, the president of Concerned Citizens of Montauk who attended Tuesday’s presentation, said, “I think this is a good start. The public is going to have plenty to say. Getting this right is going to take several iterations. It is not going to be exactly right out of the gate.”

Mr. Cantwell said that East Hampton voters’ approval of the preservation fund extension to 2050 would make up to $200 million available for water quality efforts over time, according to estimates. The November referendum added 33 years to the life of the fund and allowed for up to 20 percent to be used for groundwater and surface water protection.

A wrinkle has emerged, however, Town Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said at Tuesday’s meeting. According to a new interpretation of the preservation fund law, water quality money could only be used in the year that it was collected. This is unlike the land-acquisition portion of the fund, which provides that money can be held in reserve and accumulated.

Councilman Fred Overton wondered Tuesday about someone who wanted to take advantage of the rebate but whose house was outside the high-priority area, using himself as an example. “Am I and people my age going to be able to afford a new system? Let’s say I can’t do the right thing, but I want to do the right thing. Will it be affordable for somebody in my situation?” Mr. Overton lives on a quarter-acre lot in Springs, where he has only had to have his waste system pumped once during the time he has owned the house.

“It’s really a question of how aggressive we want to be,” Mr. Cantwell said. “Why should I, as a homeowner, replace a system that is functioning? It’s a good question.”

Concerned Citizens of Montauk, which Mr. Samuelson heads, conducts water tests at as many as 27 sites in East Hampton Town. He said that the proposal was targeting the right contaminant by going after nitrogen and that new sanitary systems would cut levels of other pollutants as well.

The list of high-priority areas for which the greatest rebates would be available includes parcels near all of the town’s harbors and navigable creeks, Georgica Pond, Fort Pond, and Wainscott Pond. Also listed are the Montauk downtown business district, the Lake Montauk dock area, Ditch Plain, and Camp Hero. The Three Mile Harbor and Hog Creek watersheds are included as well, as are high-density portions of Springs.

The East Hampton Town Natural Resources Department would oversee the rebate program, Ms. Thiele said.