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Clock running on money for water quality improvements

BEVERELA WALZ Scallopers on Coecles Harbor. Concerns are on the rise about the quality of ground and surface waters.
BEVERELA WALZ Scallopers on Coecles Harbor. Concerns are on the rise about the quality of ground and surface waters.

Tick. Tock.

The clock is running with less than four months left for the Water Quality Improvement Projects Advisory Board to spend $440,000 it was allocated for 2017, or the money will revert to the Community Preservation Fund (CPF).

Money for the CPF comes from a 2 percent tax buyers pay when purchasing East End properties and is used to purchase open space for preservation. Towns are allowed to use up to 20 percent of CPF funds collected annually to fund water protection programs.

While the water quality board continues to plan, it’s not ready to pull the trigger on spending money.

Councilwoman Chris Lewis summed up the situation at Tuesday’s Town Board work session. “If you don’t do something in the next week, we might as well hang it up until January,” she told her colleagues.

Half of September is gone, October is about budgeting for the 2018 fiscal year, the election is at the start of November and then the holidays take center stage, Ms. Lewis said.

Her words had some impact on her colleagues. Councilman Jim Colligan suggested he would help draft two applications for town projects — the new nitrogen reducing septic system that is only partially funded at Wades Beach and the system for the American Legion Hall that will be shared with Shelter Island School.

Public Works Commissioner Jay Card Jr. estimated that about $50,000 would be needed for the youth center septic system, and $14,000 at Wades Beach.

Mr. Card questioned allocating the money prior to the end of the year, even though the two projects wouldn’t be completed until 2018. The consensus was that as long as the money is allocated, it wouldn’t be reclaimed by the CPF.

There would still be money left to address some septic system upgrades, but the Town Board hasn’t approved rules and regulations on awarding money to homeowners to install the systems. The only issue discussed Tuesday was if a means test should be used to judge applications for the improved systems. There is still no clear decision.

Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams said to get applications ready to process, a means test should be scrapped, creating what she saw as an incentive for people to consider installing the nitrogen-reducing septic systems.

Mr. Colligan said he understood that position, but also could see the point of money going to people who can’t afford the steep costs of installing new systems.

At the September 7 water quality board meeting, member Greg Toner said neighboring towns using a means test were basing it on the STAR tax reduction program that makes those with incomes of less than $500,000 eligible. It also bans reductions in cost to limited liability corporations such as the one developing a luxury housing community on the shores of Coecles Harbor.

That raised the question of whether those making close to $500,000 would be willing to show their tax returns.

On Tuesday, Ms. Lewis suggested starting without a means test, but revisiting the question for ongoing grants in 2018.

No vote was taken.

Rules and regs
Still pending are rules and regulations for awarding grants. If the Town Board enacts legislation codifying rules, it won’t have to hold public hearings on each application. If it fails to move on rules, it would be forced to schedule public hearings on individual application.

Building Permits Coordinator Lori Beard Raymond recently told the water quality board that at the request of Councilman Paul Shepherd, she had created an application for grants. That, too, has to be approved by the Town Board before applications could be accepted.

An engineer is necessary to assess the effectiveness of various projects. It would be up to the Town Board to determine how much of the $440,000 could be spent on engineering, although the water quality board seemed to settle on about $40,000 for the remainder of this year.

Following that, it’s expected a full-time engineer would be hired by the town, to replace John Cronin, who has resigned.

“Shelter Island has a vested interest in making sure this is happening,” Mr. Eklund said, noting the fragility of the town’s aquifer.

A side issue arose for the water quality board when Dering Harbor Village Board member Kirk Ressler asked Supervisor Jim Dougherty and water advisory board member Mark Mobius whether money from the fund could be used to help with the costs of repairs to the village’s water system.

The answer is no. The grants can’t be used for repairs that the village face.

“It’s a terrible strain on a community,” Mr. Eklund said, noting that just as Heights residents have to ante up for repairs in their area of town, that’s the situation in the village. Grants are for reducing nitrogen levels in septic systems, not to fix aged and broken water systems, the water quality board said.