In an effort to spur East Hampton Town residents to replace aging or failing sanitary systems to improve ecologically degraded waterways, the town’s Water Quality Technical Advisory Committee has recommended several modifications to the town’s rebate program, which was launched last year with a percentage of community preservation fund money to incentivize property owners but has yielded few participants to date.
Chris Clapp, the committee’s chairman, and Mellissa Winslow, an environmental analyst with the town’s Natural Resources Department, presented five recommendations at the board’s meeting on Tuesday “to enable the greatest participation in the program possible, to advance water quality as quickly as possible,” Mr. Clapp said.
Implementing the recommendations would also relieve tax burdens on property owners, speed payment to the vendors installing new, low-nitrogen septic systems, and alleviate paperwork for the town government, he said.
Rather than the existing rebate program, Mr. Clapp recommended a “partial direct-pay program” in which one check would be issued to the vendor upon completion of the installation and another to the property owner as compensation for ancillary expenses incurred. These could include the need to move the property’s well or even a neighboring property’s well, an oil tank, or an HVAC condenser. “All sort of things we didn’t foresee over a year ago, when the program was rolled out,” Mr. Clapp said.
“By directly paying the vendors,” he said, “we would alleviate the homeowner of that portion of the tax burden, and it minimizes the upfront costs to the homeowner, thereby increasing participation in the program by people who just can’t lay out thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.” The average cost of a septic system replacement is around $31,500, Ms. Winslow said, with out-of-pocket cost after town, Suffolk County, and New York State rebates averaging $6,000.
Payment to vendors can take up to four months, Mr. Clapp said. Some will “do four, maybe five jobs and then not take on any more, wait to get paid on those, and then come back into the program. It’s a cash flow problem.” With a direct payment, “you’d get some of the smaller contractors to come in who can’t absorb that lead time in payment.”
The maximum disbursement within water protection districts, where the need to replace old sanitary systems is most acute, should be increased from $16,000 to $20,000, Mr. Clapp said, and from $10,000 to $15,000 elsewhere. There are approximately 7,000 residences in those districts, Ms. Winslow said, of roughly 19,000 over all.
A third modification would remove a means test, the maximum income to be eligible for a subsidy. “Not surprisingly, the majority of the properties we want to see upgraded first are coastal, waterfront properties” that are more likely to be owned by affluent residents, but some remain reluctant to participate in the program, Mr. Clapp said. The requirement that participants submit income tax returns is “a natural barrier for many people,” he added. Omitting that requirement could increase participation, he said.
A “septic registry” that would replace the need for a building permit to install a new septic system was another recommendation. This, Mr. Clapp said, could remove another barrier to participation: homeowners wary of triggering a larger review of their property, should noncompliant conditions pursuant to the zoning code exist, for example. “It would greatly reduce the amount of paperwork the Building Department has to process now,” he said.
Last, appropriating money for additional rebates to cover extreme circumstances was recommended. Citing one replacement project that cost more than $64,000, Mr. Clapp said property owners facing a financial burden can “come back, make an application to the advisory committee to review those cost overruns, and potentially get another rebate.”
Should the town adopt that recommendation, the town board would be the arbiter in decisions to disburse additional money, Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said.
“If we decided to move forward,” Mr. Clapp said, “I believe we would have to have . . . clear and definable limits as to what is and is not acceptable. And a cap.”
“There’s a direct public benefit here,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “There’s not really that much of a direct benefit to the property owner to undertake this. We want to encourage them and incentivize them to create a public benefit.”
The town has the highest per capita rate of low-nitrogen septic system installations in the county, Mr. Van Scoyoc said, but “we still need to increase our public’s participation, and this is a really good way to do that. I’m glad we’re reviewing this, having found what the obstacles or deterrents to the system are, to make it acceptable.”
Once the town’s attorneys have developed appropriate language for amendments and the board’s comments are incorporated, the committee’s recommendations will be considered at a future work session before any resolutions or changes to the code, the supervisor said.