Preserving the Waters One Parcel at a Time

As the year draws to a close, it is worth reflecting on the ongoing success of the Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund in East Hampton Town. As of this week — and with several deals pending — money from a 2-percent tax on most real estate transactions had saved 2,063 acres of land from development. The money went for environmentally significant parcels as well as historic sites and properties that provided public access, recreational opportunities, and helped link the town’s growing woodland trail system. 

In November, voters here approved extending the 2-percent tax until 2050 and okayed a measure to allow up to 20 percent of future preservation fund income to be spent on water protection measures other than straight-up land acquisition. These could include rebates to help homeowners replace failing septic systems, which leach contaminants into ponds, bays, and harbors. 

In 2014, the fund brought in a record $32.3 million. With two months left before the final figure for this year is known, the town is on track to pull in somewhere upward of $27 million; in 2015 the year-end total was just under $29 million. Its low point in the past decade came in 2009, when a mere $10.4 million was banked.

The fund has come a long way since the first acquisition, in 1999, but in many ways the goals of the program remain unchanged. That year, the town bought a half-acre on the Sammy’s Beach side of Three Mile Harbor from John and Betty Ulrich for $145,000. The Ulrichs wanted to build a house on a lot that was mostly a saltwater wetland, but the zoning board of appeals did not approve it. Among the problems with the property were that it did not have its own source of potable water. The Ulrichs sought the board’s approval for a well on a property on the other side of Sammy’s Beach Road. Among the zoning board members apparently favoring its public acquisition were Jay Schneiderman, who is now Southampton Town supervisor, and Peter Van Scoyoc, now a member of the East Hampton Town Board.

Watershed protection and its improvement are today still at the top of the priority list for the people who oversee East Hampton Town’s preservation fund. Inner harbor sites, like the one bought from the Ulrichs in 1999, or the roughly 40 properties purchased in a multiyear effort to improve Lake Montauk, are highly desirable. 

Though we remain concerned about the potential for abuse of money for water quality projects, over all, the preservation fund has been an unqualified success, and its extension is good news. We look forward to more and bigger purchases using this powerful program in 2017.