Southampton Town’s septic system rebate program has been a rousing success—so much so that the eagerness of homeowners has already drained all funding for the initiative, leaving town officials uncertain where the program will go next.
The town doled out approximately $48,700 to 16 homeowners to help them cover the cost of replacing their aging and failing septic systems in important watershed areas near local bays. The eagerness of residents to take advantage of the financial assistance was clear: Nearly half the money was earmarked for projects on the very first day applications for the rebate program were accepted by the town, according to Southampton Town Chief Building Inspector Michael Benincasa, whose office oversaw the rebate program. The rest of the money was awarded by the end of the first week.
The building inspector said residents were surprised at how easily the program functioned, requiring them to simply fill out a single form and submit an estimate or bill for the cost of the replacement. He said many homeowners already had the estimates done when they showed up on the day the program was rolled out.
Mr. Benincasa noted that most homeowners were awarded about $2,500 toward the cost of replacing a basic septic ring system, which costs about $5,000. A handful of projects were approved to receive the maximum rebate of $6,000 for the replacement of septic systems with more complicated and expensive systems in designated critical watersheds.
The initial $50,000 in seed money for the septic replacement program came from the town’s newly created Water Quality Protection Fund. But when additional money can be dedicated to the program is not known.
“It’s definitely a bittersweet success, because I’m happy it was successful—but now we have to find more funding,” said Town Councilwoman Christine Scalera, who authored the legislation creating the program. “It has showed that people are willing to undertake this work if there is an incentive or some assistance.”
Ms. Scalera said she has talked with Suffolk County officials about various water quality programs and is hopeful there may be grant money on the horizon that could feed the town’s septic rebate system.
She said there are no immediate plans to use any money from the town’s operating budget, or its substantial surplus funding, to continue the rebate program in the immediate future. In drafting the rebate program, the board never discussed creating a permanent funding source for the program, such as fees on construction permits.
“I don’t want to make this another tax. I want it to be something that takes advantage of opportunities when they come around,” Ms. Scalera said.
In recent years scientists have identified nitrogen pollution seeping from residential septic systems as the primary cause of declining water quality and the emergence of numerous harmful algae blooms in local bays. Last year, marine biologists from Stony Brook University declared western Shinnecock Bay essentially “sterile” because they found no evidence that any species of shellfish was successfully reproducing in the bay’s waters.
Reducing the amount of contamination from residential development on the fringes of bays is seen as critical, and possibly the only solution to restoring water quality and once robust fish, crustacean and shellfish populations. Older septic systems, many of which sit directly in groundwater and often fail to provide even minimal filtration of human waste, have been spotlighted as a particular concern.
The rebate program awarded up to $6,000 to cover as much as 60 percent of the cost of removing any septic system installed before 1981 and replacing it with newer systems that capture more waste before it reaches water tables. Environmental advocates have called for the town and county to approve and incentivize the use of far more advanced, and costly, systems that greatly reduce the amount of nitrogen that seeps out of waste tanks and into groundwater.