Across the East End over the past week-and-a-half, environmentalists have rallied in support of a ballot proposition that would extend the Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund to 2050, and would allow the five East End town governments to use 20 percent of the money generated by the fund for water quality projects.
East Hampton, Southampton and Southold towns all held public hearings in the past week-and-a-half on the proposed referenda, and East Hampton and Southampton also held hearings on Water Quality Improvement Plans which detail how the water quality money will be spend.
Each of the five East End towns has its own Community Preservation Fund coffers, filled by money from a 2 percent real estate transfer tax, and each town must put up its own referendum on the extension. The CPF fund, enacted in 1998, was extended to 2010 by public referenda in 2002 and was extended again to 2030 by referenda in 2006.
State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, the author of the CPF legislation, explained the proposed changes at Southampton’s public hearing Aug. 9.
“There’s no dispute there is a water quality issue on Long Island,” he said. “We have a problem and we have to resolve that problem.”
Mr. Thiele said preserving water quality by halting development was one of the primary original goals of the Community Preservation Fund, but the way the program was set up, it did nothing to change the impact of faulty, aging septic systems that are currently contributing to the degradation of the health of the bays.
“The legacy from existing development is already here. That legacy is something we can’t simply wave a wand, change the zoning and make go away,” he said. “It’s going to cost money to do the remediation.”
Mr. Thiele added that, while he’s heard comments to the effect that larger government agencies, other than towns, should be tackling water quality issues, “if we had waited for the state, federal and county governments to do preservation, this would have been Levittown.”
“People say, ‘why should we use the CPF to solve this problem,’ and my first point is, ‘do you have a better idea?'” he said. “I don’t know anybody who wants to raise property taxes or sales taxes. This might be the only source out there. The direct intent of the CPF fund was to protect water by preserving land.”
The state law authorizing the towns to collect revenue for water quality allows the money to be used for four specific purposes: improvements to wastewater treatment, non-point source pollution control and abatement, habitat restoration and pollution prevention.
Proposed projects, which must be either included in the towns’ Water Quality Improvement Plans or added as amendments to those plans, would be vetted by volunteer town committees with expertise in water quality issues.
East Hampton and Southold’s draft laws also currently include language that “projects which have as their primary purpose the accommodation of new growth as opposed to the remediation of water quality shall not qualify for funding under this article.”
That language concerns many community members, who would like to see the word “primary” stricken, because they see it as an in for developers looking to tap a keg of money that has always been used for work that was precisely at odds with development.
Nowhere was this sentiment more strong than in East Hampton, where nearly a decade ago former Town Supervisor Bill McGintee and his budget director improperly used about $8 million of Community Preservation Fund money to pay the town’s general fund expenses.
“I have really deep concern about the ‘primary purpose’ language,” said Jeanne Frankl at the town’s Aug. 4 public hearing. “I am a lawyer. I’ve seen that type of language too many times. Lawyers will end up arguing endlessly about that. It will end up in the Supreme Court. You must go back to the drawing board on this.”
“A yes vote is a no-brainer. It’s hard to understand how anyone could oppose this referendum,” said Betty Mazur. “There’s some concern the language is not quite strong enough to prevent any consequences of any unintended development. You should absolutely prohibit its use for private development.”
Southampton has already removed the word “primary,” calling it a scrivener’s error.