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Nov 26, 2018 1:53 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Some Concern About Low Turnout For Town-Run Septic Rebates In Southampton And East Hampton

A nitrogen-filtering septic system was installed last week at a home on Waterhole Road in Springs, using the town's septic rebate program. KYRIL BROMLEY
Dec 3, 2018 2:45 PM

John Thorsen Jr.’s backyard was torn up last week, as construction crews finished installing an advanced septic system, which will filter out nitrogen—the leading water pollutant in waterways and groundwater on Long Island.

“My septic tank was as old as the house, and it was going to fail sometime in the near future. And I live across the street from Hog Creek,” Mr. Thorsen said, referring to the waterway near his home in Springs. “When I learned about state and county grant options, and the town’s rebate program, I thought this was as good a time as any to reduce any impact our house might have been having on Hog Creek and get our old septic tank replaced at no cost.”

His system was one of 11 installed using a septic system improvement rebate program offered by East Hampton Town since the incentive launched in September 2017, according to the town’s Natural Resources Department. There are 95 applications in the process of being considered or already eligible for the program.

In Southampton Town, which launched its own rebate program around the same time, there have been 16 installations, and 96 more applications are seeking eligibility for the program, according to the town Community Preservation Fund office. Only four rebates were paid out in 2018.

If a homeowner can get a grant from Suffolk County and the state, and the town rebate too, the $21,000 approximate cost of a new system is more than covered.

Based on those figures, however, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said he was disappointed with the overall turnout for the first year of each town’s septic rebate program.

He said part of the problem is that the towns aren’t aggressive enough in making residents aware of the programs. “I have been underwhelmed by the outreach and the results thus far,” he said, pointing to what he calls “lackluster numbers” for participation.

Mr. Thiele contends that most residents are simply unaware of the advantages a nitrogen-filtering system can have on the value and utility of their home. Nitrogen leaked from antiquated septic systems cause algae blooms in ponds and lakes on the South Fork, and pollute drinking water wells.

“When thinking about home improvements, you can get them excited about putting in a new swimming pool. Nobody is sitting around thinking, ‘I can’t wait to upgrade my septic system,’” he said.

Melissa Winslow, an environmental analyst in the East Hampton Town Natural Resources Department, agrees that outreach is a problem. But town officials, along with those in Southampton Town, are trying to find ways to inform residents through more community programs, and possibly even direct mail.

“This is still ramping up,” Ms. Winslow said.

She noted that some residents are discouraged by the "tedious" process of getting approved by Suffolk County Department of Health Services, one of a handful of requirements for any new septic system and for the rebate.

“Folks stop here first to process their rebate and know they have the funds to encumber their use before they go for their applications to the Suffolk County Health Department, which can take a long time,” said Mary Wilson, Community Preservation Fund manager in Southampton. Ms. Wilson said homeowners are reluctant to have systems installed in the spring and summer months, as construction could disrupt the property when it would be used the most.

Southampton Town code mandates that all new residential construction and large property expansions in high-priority areas upgrade their septic systems. Suffolk County Department of Health Services and the town’s Conservation Board can require any other project to install a new system, independent of the town code. Properties in high-priority areas are eligible for up to $20,000; eligibility is also based on other factors, like household income. Properties in medium priority areas—based on less proximity to wetlands and water bodies—likely would receive a smaller rebate.

East Hampton Town code requires all new construction, substantial renovation and any other voluntary upgrades, regardless of location, to upgrade. There are two rebates: a $16,000 rebate for homeowners who live in the water protection district, which are high-priority areas, or in affordable housing; and another $10,000 rebate for remaining homeowners.

Between state, county and town funding, a homeowner could receive up to $36,000, which far exceeds what’s required to buy and install an upgraded system. But it does help pay for additional site problems during installation, like moving a drinking water well that would interfere with construction.

Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said East Hampton Town is looking for ways to mandate more installations, including requiring an upgraded system at time of sale. “The reason for doing that is those costs can be absorbed more easily within a 30-year mortgage and financed, and it’s not a large percentage of the overall cost of a house here,” he said.

Mr. Thiele also called the method of how residents get the money—through a rebate—into question.

“Obviously, getting a grant up front is a lot easier on the homeowner than seeking reimbursement,” Mr. Thiele said. “The towns may want to take a look at that.”

Rebate payments are fulfilled through the Community Preservation Fund, fed by a 2 percent tax on most real estate trades in the five East End towns. In 2016, voters approved spending up to 20 percent of the funds for water quality improvement projects.

“There is certainly money available to do these programs, and the towns need to adjust the programs as they would with any new program and come with its own administrative problems,” Mr. Thiele said.

Mr. Van Scoyoc said he doesn’t see a need to change the rebate. “I don’t think homeowners would have to put any money up front under the current scenario,” he said. “Most contractors would work based off the state and county grants, and once the system is completed, they would get the rebate to pay for the balance.”

“In essence, the grant and the rebate are the same thing,” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said. “It’s still free money. You don’t have to pay it back. You just have to spend the money before you can collect the money.”

But Mr. Schneiderman said he would support measures to shift the program toward a grant instead of a rebate to pay the bills—though no legislation is on the table to do that.

“We are all having to adjust to these new systems in terms of the Building Department, but I don’t think that is so bad,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “We have to start somewhere. You are going to see more and more in the future. It’s a new program—but I really wasn't expecting a massive rush in the first place.

“If that’s an impediment, we can look at advancing the money,” he continued. “But we are not just going to hand people money and say, go spend it. They would have to have the bill in hand.”

What state, county and town officials can agree on is the cost of installations of advanced septic systems getting more affordable for homeowners, which would reduce the amount municipalities spend providing assistance to residents.

“I would like to think that as the installers of the approved systems do more and more of them the pricing will become more competitive for homeowners, which will help more folks take advantage of it,” Ms. Wilson said.

There are talks about having a third-party environmental nonprofit pay for the balance of a project and collect the rebate instead, but those negotiations are still ongoing.

There is also state legislation working its way through Albany to change the requirement of having a licensed engineer sign off on every project, which could dramatically speed up the process. “It would be similar to HVAC systems installed by trained professionals, but an engineer doesn’t have to sign off on every one,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said.

He is also looking forward to “plug-and-play” ways to upgrade recently installed traditional septic tanks with nitrogen filtering capabilities.
Neither town has conducted any real water quality testing to assess the impact that the nitrogen-filtering systems have had on groundwater. Ms. Winslow said East Hampton Town Natural Resources Department wants targeted installations in specific neighborhoods to protect nearby bodies of water, and promote community wastewater treatment systems, which would shift the responsibility of nitrogen filtration from the hands of residents to the town.

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It’s hardly shocking that people are unwilling to shell out $20k+ with a “trust me” on reimbursement from town/county/state bureaucrats. That’s just being smart. If the policy is good (I believe this one is) and the public funding is really there (seems to be), then why not make it as user friendly as possible for citizens to take advantage of? The only impediment to such an obvious fix is the same public bureaucracy we are currently being asked to trust to send us a check.
By CPalmer (122), Southampton on Nov 27, 18 1:55 PM
Yes - they're a great thing for the environment, but the big problem here is not the lack of information, but maybe the unwillingness to go through the process which involves digging up the entire yard.

These I/A systems take up quite a bit of real estate due to the leaching fields involved. Anyone with a fair amount of trees will potentially have to bear the cost of removing them if need be, let alone the potential issue of having a driveway chewed up by an excavator.
By Harbor Master (114), Sag Harbor on Nov 27, 18 2:52 PM
Town and Thiele complain, but has either put out a flier with all the grants with all the info??? I get enough junk from both, add all the info and a number in town hall to get a packet if they are interested...
By knitter (1941), Southampton on Nov 27, 18 3:30 PM
Or save the paper and make it digital. Most people these days can print a form, fill it out and scan it. Just create a page on the town website. For good measure, make sure the document can be edited digitally.
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Nov 27, 18 7:06 PM
"state, county and town funding, a homeowner could receive up to $36,000"

Where do you think this money comes from----the taxpayer of course!!!!!

Just like the all wonderful solar projects ----rate payers and taxpayers foot the bill.

Eventually someone has to pay----NO FREE LUNCH.

By Amagansett Voter (62), Amagansett on Nov 27, 18 5:51 PM
Why is no one asking if these news systems even perform as promised...because I heard they don't but the muckity muck politicians are keeping it under their hats. Why don't the wizards of smart at 27 east ask about that.
By Preliator Lives (437), Obamavillie on Nov 28, 18 6:57 AM
Even if the septic system were free, there is a lifelong 24/7 electric bill & regular costly human inspections required. The maintenance cost alone would bankrupt a retired person. Just keep your old standard systems, they work fine.
By themarlinspike (542), southampton on Nov 28, 18 8:45 AM
1 member liked this comment
Cpf money was to preserve land not sewage ,marinas, golf courses. no more land to buy just another tax. Time ot rein it in,
By Obserever (40), Southnampton on Nov 29, 18 11:28 AM
This story should have included a link to how a person can initiate this process.
By HappyEnd (1), Westhampton on Nov 29, 18 12:12 PM
I agee. How do I get started seeking these rebates?
By norbuls (1), East Hampton on Nov 29, 18 6:30 PM
It's yucky to swim in septic leacheate
By Aeshtron (431), Southampton on Dec 3, 18 6:18 PM
Its drinkable after passing through three feet of sand.
By themarlinspike (542), southampton on Dec 3, 18 7:17 PM
I read all the negative thoughts here and it's not that bad to be honest. We had to undergo this change and install the new system and we hired Rescue Cesspool( https://www.rescuecesspool.com/) to do the job. Fee was not that high as many here suggest and it was reasonable. The system is about 8 months old and we had our first inspection at the 6th month with no other maintenance needed. This may change in the future but what I can say is "so far so good".
By johnyrolands (1), Lake Grove on Aug 31, 19 6:52 AM