East Hampton Town is moving toward modifications to its rebate program for septic system replacements in an effort to spur residents to replace aging or failing sanitary systems with new, low-nitrogen models and improve ecologically degraded waterways in the process.
Excess nitrogen in waterways is blamed for promoting harmful algal blooms, which can render water unsafe for humans and pets and kill finfish and shellfish.
“We think these revisions . . . will help further incentivize and gain more interest in this process,” Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said on Tuesday, when the town board discussed modifications recommended last month by the town’s water quality technical advisory committee.
The septic rebate program was launched last year with a percentage of community preservation fund money to encourage property owners to take action, but has yielded few participants to date. Changes would be subject to a public hearing.
The average cost of a septic system replacement is around $31,500, an official in the town’s Natural Resources Department told the board last month, with out-of-pocket cost after town, Suffolk County, and New York State rebates averaging about $6,000.
The water quality committee had recommended an increase in the maximum disbursement within water protection districts, where the need to replace old sanitary systems is most acute, from $16,000 to $20,000. Elsewhere, it recommended an increase from $10,000 to $15,000. The town has roughly 19,000 septic systems; approximately 7,000 are located in those water protection districts.
“This will help incentivize the transition to low-nitrogen systems by covering nearly all the expenses associated with that work for residents,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said Tuesday.
Another recommendation was to modify the rebate program to what the committee’s chairman last month called 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. This is to alleviate the property owner of that portion of the tax burden and minimize upfront costs.
The town code refers to it as a rebate program, “but we thought the title would be better as an incentive program, in part because one of the proposals is to change the method by which we pay for the construction improvements,” by paying the contractor directly, John Jilnicki, the town attorney, told the three board members at Tuesday’s meeting. “It eliminates one stage of income to the homeowner.” Presently, the town issues a check to the property owner, who receives a W-2 wage and tax statement from the town. “We thought if we pay the contractor directly, it could possibly minimize tax implications to the homeowner.”
A third modification would remove a means test, the maximum income to be eligible for a subsidy, the committee having reasoned that the majority of high-priority properties for septic replacement are the waterfront parcels more likely to be owned by affluent residents, along with others within the two-year groundwater travel time to harbors, bays, and creeks. “We’ll see the most direct and immediate impact from having those systems . . . upgraded,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “This is the one thing that everybody in the town can pretty well do that will have the greatest impact on improving and protecting our water quality.”
A “septic registry” authorization that would replace the need to obtain a building permit to install a new septic system was also recommended, the expectation being that it would remove another barrier to participation in the program — homeowners wary of triggering a complete review of their property, should noncompliant conditions pursuant to the zoning code exist. “If all you’re doing is upgrade of your sanitary,” Mr. Jilnicki said, and not enlarging its capacity or making other improvements, the registry would supplant the need to obtain a building permit.
“The registry is good for existing systems upgrading, but if you’re putting in a new system on a new developed property, that would require a building permit,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said.
“Our effort is to immediately try to address nitrogen input into our ground and ultimately into the waters of East Hampton,” the supervisor said. “We’re trying to highly incentivize those areas within the two-year travel time, but every single property has an impact. It could be 10 years, it could be 25 years, but we want to ensure that we have a low-nitrogen future, that we don’t overburden our water bodies, creating harmful algal blooms and shellfish and fish die-offs. We can’t continue to pollute the way we have in the past.”