Would you take a portion of funds from a wildly successful open space preservation program and use it for water quality improvement projects?
That’s what voters are being asked to approve on a ballot referendum on November 8.
At a public forum at the school auditorium on Sunday sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Shelter Island and the Shelter Island Association, Town Engineer John Cronin and Town Assessor BJ Ianfolla took the stage to discuss the issue after the two candidates for the Town Board, Republican challenger Amber Brach-Williams and Councilwoman Mary Dudley made their case for election.
The event was moderated by league member Cathy Kenny.
A law was signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo last December allowing towns to use up to 20 percent of the Community Preservation Fund (CPF) for water projects — if approved by a local referendum . The CPF is funded by a 2 percent tax on real estate transactions in the five East End towns and has been used only for open space purchases since its inception in 1999.
The projects to be funded by a portion of CPF money collected, if approved by the voters, would include:
• Wastewater treatment improvements
• Aquatic habitat restoration
• Pollution prevention
• Operation of the Peconic Bay National Estuary Program.
A committee formed by the Town Board, consisting of Supervisor Jim Dougherty, Councilwoman Mary Dudley, Town Attorney Laury Dowd, Ms. Ianfolla and Mr. Cronin, drafted the Island’s criteria on implementing the projects. Ms. Ianfolla said the criteria “created a metric” to prioritize the most essential initiatives for water quality.
Mr. Cronin stressed the issue is important “because we’re an island,” and compared the town to “a scaled down version of Suffolk County and Long Island,” which all public officials agree is facing a clean water crisis.
The crisis is an environmental above all, Ms. Ianfolla said, but it can also be seriously affect economics.
“What’s the point,” she asked rhetorically, “of a beautiful waterfront property if it’s on a dead bay?”
A resident asked if a part of the CPF money dedicated to water improvement could be used to hire professionals to manage programs. Mr. Cronin said that considering the Island’s size and tradition of volunteerism, there is no need “to generate 200 page documents to get to the nuts and bolts of projects we can do here.”
Peter Reich, a former town councilman, asked if the annual portion taken from the CPF for water can be rolled over into the next year. “I hate the use it or lose it mentality,” Mr. Reich said.
Ms. Ianfolla said that perhaps the town can review projects that require a multi-year investment.
Another resident asked how much money was collected into the CPF and Ms. Ianfolla said that it was running about $2 million per year, which would yield a maximum of $400,000 per year for water programs.
A question about how approval of the referendum would affect new construction, was answered by Ms. Ianfolla: “These funds can not be used to encourage growth.”
Rather than providing individual homeowners with loans to upgrade or purchase state-of the art septic systems, Ms. Ianfolla said that means-tested incentives could be provided.
Stephen Gessner asked if a yes vote would in effect keep “county water away from the Island.”
Mr. Cronin responded that in looking at other areas in the county, “the Suffolk County Water Authority is not the solution to all problems.”
Howard Johansen asked where the complete referendum could be located since it wasn’t on the town’s website. “This should be available to the public,” Mr. Johansen said. Ms. Ianfolla said she would ensure the complete referendum would be publicly available. (Later during the meeting, Ms. Brach-Williams said it could be found on the Suffolk County Board of Elections website.)
Mr. Johansen noted that in the CPF legislation, 10 percent of the annual fund is to be used for maintenance of preserved property, so in effect only 70 percent could remain for open space purchased if the maximum amount was taken for clean water programs.
Asked how much land was left that could be preserved on the Island, Mr. Dougherty, speaking from the audience, said that he couldn’t disclose details but there are a few “big parcels” and “quite a bit of land” left that were on the drawing board for purchasing.
Both Mr. Cronin and Ms. Ianfolla urged voters to be sure and flip over their ballots on Election Day since the CPF proposition is on the back.