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Putting more controls on distributing town money

At Tuesday’s Town Board work session, members discussed putting more controls on town funds distributed to residents.

They picked up on an initiative the Water Quality Improvement Projects Advisory Board (WQI) is working on to set criteria before granting funds to homeowners to install state-of-the-art nitrogen-reducing, or “I/A” septic systems.

The WQI was created after the state allowed some funds collected through the Community Preservation Fund to be used for water protection programs. The CPF imposes a 2% tax buyers pay when purchasing East End properties and is used to purchase open space for preservation. Subsequent legislation, considering polluted drinking water on the East End, allows 20 percent of the preservation fund money to go to improve water quality. After the legislation was passed, each East End town had to set up committees to discuss how they will use the water protection funds. On the Island, the WQI was created, and began granting money to homeowners to replace aged septic systems with nitrogen-reducing systems. 

Supervisor Gerry Siller noted Tuesday that “this money is not just for I/A systems,” but for other water improvement projects.

Councilman Albert Dickson, who is the board’s liaison to the WQI, said everyone is on the same page, and new criteria for grants are in the works.

Some ideas, Mr. Dickson said, for vetting applicants, include “location sensitivity,” noting that the Center is in particular need of safe drinking water, as well as locations near freshwater wetlands. Another thing to consider before giving money to residents is how much nitrogen will be reduced by a specific system, with Mr. Dickson citing questions the committee had about whether a house is used full-time and how many residents are using it. 

A homeowner’s income might also be a criterion to acquire funding, Mr. Dickson said.

Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams noted that there have been lower preservation funds coming to the town in past years, and new vetting for residents to acquire I/A systems is a sound idea.

Councilman Mike Bebon said that the discussion on criteria had only “locations relative to surface water bodies” and said “water fields” in West Neck and Dering Harbor should be added to the list for vetting.

In other business: The Town Board will revisit creating and implementing a sea grass management plan. 

Shelter Island, along with only one other location in the Northeast, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), has thriving meadows of underwater seagrass in its coastal waters. Seagrass — also called eelgrass — is a long plant that provides a habitat for flounders, bay scallops and clams. Fifteen years ago, species relying on seagrass contributed $1.9 billion in sales of seafood and $1 billion in earned income, according to a Nature Conservancy report. But today, almost 65 percent of the seagrass meadows are gone, beginning their long and perilous decline since the mid-1970s, according to a DEC report. The New York State Seagrass Protection Act of 2012 calls for the development of seagrass areas and working with local governments, businesses, fishermen, environmental groups and individuals to come up with plans to stop the erosion of the natural resource.

A plan drafted by Councilman Jim Colligan two years ago was presented to the public and met with fierce criticism, especially from the Island’s baymen, who were outraged that they had not been consulted. They then put together their own plan that on Tuesday Mr. Colligan said was inadequate.

He admitted he’d made a mistake by not including the men and women who work on the water in drafting a plan, saying he had to “eat crow.” 

But a new initiative could be in the cards, with Supervisor Siller saying he wants to meet with baymen and listen to their concerns.

He also said he wants to meet with business leaders in a group session, as well as scheduling a meeting with residents in a similar session at a time and venue to be determined.