Tisbury nitrogen tax proposal finds few takers

In the last of a series of public hearings, Island residents questioned the data, the science, and the fairness of the board of health proposal.

Lagoon Pond Wednesday afternoon. — Sam Moore

The Tisbury board of health wrapped up a series of three public hearings Monday at the Tisbury Emergency Services Facility on its proposal to mitigate the flow of nitrogen into town bodies of water by imposing a graded tax on new construction. Once again, the majority of those in attendance questioned the foundations upon which the proposals are based.

The proposed regulations would require a homeowner in the Lake Tashmoo and Lagoon Pond watersheds to pay anywhere from $320 to $3,200 annually for 20 years to help pay for efforts to alleviate nitrogen loading.

About 25 people attended the hearing on Monday night, and a second hearing held last Wednesday. Michael Loberg, who has taken the lead on the three-member board of health, outlined the proposals.

Attendees, who included residents of other Island towns, raised four primary objections. Individual speakers asked that the entire town of Tisbury be responsible for addressing the problem; they wanted to know the specific human health risks from nitrogen loading; they questioned why, if the nitrogen in the ponds poses a health risk, other Island towns were not involved; and they asked that the board of health present the results of current groundwater tests to determine exactly how much nitrogen is in fact in the groundwater.

In an interview with The Times on Wednesday following the close of the series of public hearings, Chris Priore and Dylan Seder of Bay State Leisure Homes stressed that they think the mitigation fee unfairly affects new homeowners. Mr. Priore said that it directly affects him as a business owner.

He said that many houses in the Tashmoo area are two-bedroom summer homes that new homeowners are looking to renovate because of affordability. Mr. Priore said the mitigation fee would steer many of his younger clients away from building in the area. Mr. Priore and Mr. Seder emphasized there’s often a pattern of pushing new people out through regulations on the Island, and that the proposed fees would only escalate the housing crisis.

“It’s going to penalize a small group of people,” Mr. Priore said.

Numbers underscored

Many of those who turned out over the course of the hearing are intimately familiar with the building trades and septic systems. Kent Healy, a well-respected civil engineer from West Tisbury, wanted better numbers.

“It seems to me that if you are going to make calculations as to how the nitrogen from the septic system should be reduced, you should have good data showing that it’s getting to the estuaries by the groundwater,” Mr. Healy said last week. “It’s a very simple thing to do.”

Mr. Healy has worked with septic systems over the past 50 years across the Island. He said that the numbers that the board of health are using for the proposed nitrogen regulations have been computer-generated by the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP).

“Measure the groundwater. Test the groundwater to see how much nitrogen is in it,” Mr. Healy said at the second hearing. “There are many other sources of nitrogen, which you haven’t talked about. To assume that the nitrogen you want to get rid of comes from the septic systems is a big assumption, and it’s expensive. And it might not show any beneficial results.”

The board of health’s proposed new wastewater regulations would impose substantial fees on new developments, including additions and renovations that increase a home’s water usage. Property owners in the Tashmoo and Lagoon watersheds, under a “no new net nitrogen” policy, would be financially responsible for mitigating the effects of wastewater-based nitrogen that enters the groundwater through a semiannual fee, included in the homeowner’s water bill, based on metered water usage and an estimate that it costs the town $300 to remove a pound of nitrogen from wastewater.

For example, based on average water usage and use of a Title 5 septic system, the owner of a new three-bedroom home in either watershed would pay an annual fee that would total $3,200.

Under the proposed regulations, the charge could be reduced to $2,100 with the installation and use of an enhanced denitrification system, designed to remove nitrogen from the wastewater. The use of denitrifying toilets in combination with advanced systems could reduce the annual fee to $320.

One speaker pointed out that for some, $3,200 exceeds one year’s property tax bill. The question was raised as to how much money would be generated from the mitigation fee and whether it would actually solve the nitrogen problem in the watersheds.

Health agent Maura Valley, speaking during the third hearing, said that based on the number of 44 building permits pulled to increase the number of bedrooms in homes in the watersheds, she estimated that a total of $52,000 would have been generated in fees in 2015. “It’s not a significant amount,” Ms. Valley said.

Application of the fee would be triggered by the filing of a building permit with an increase in water usage, and would cease either after 20 years, when the development is connected to the town sewer system, or when the town successfully removes enough nitrogen to certify water quality standards.

“My question is, Why isn’t this a town problem instead of the last 40 people that build?” Marni Lipke asked during the second hearing. “I’m not suggesting delay; all I’m suggesting is that the fee be spread over the entire town,” Ms. Lipke said.

A collective no

Over the course of the three hearings, many people in the audience expressed gratitude to the committee for raising awareness around the issue and opening it up to a public forum. The concern remained, however, that specific data were lacking, as well as a clearly defined plan to solve the issue.

“If the purpose is to reduce nitrogen, and you’re amassing funds to do that, wouldn’t it be advisable to have a plan that identifies exactly how you will achieve that nitrogen reduction with these funds before instituting a regulation to collect money?” Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Island Housing Trust (IHT), asked at the second hearing.

While there was general agreement on the need to clean Lake Tashmoo and Lagoon Pond, it was the method that divided those in the room. 

Members of the audience questioned what kinds of human health risks excessive levels of nitrogen in the ponds pose. At the first two hearings, members of the board of health had difficulty specifically addressing that issue.

On Monday, Mr. Loberg defined the health risks, and explained why the board of health believed it was a public health issue. Ingestion of shellfish from affected areas, inhalation, and dermal contact were the primary health risks.

“The question came back, is nitrate really a public health issue? In one sense, I’d say our drinking water is safe. It’s not a nitrate issue,” Mr. Loberg said. “Is the nitrate in the ponds itself a health issue? It’s relatively low. I would say no. But, are the effects of the nitrate in the ponds a health issue if left unaddressed? I would say yes.”

Several members of the audience questioned why, if it was in fact a health risk, other Island towns were not involved. They also asked that the groundwater be tested.

Throughout the discussion, the board of health has maintained it has the authority it needs to implement the new regulations if the board declares nitrogen loading a public health risk.

“How does this not go to a town vote?” Mr. Priore asked. “If you’re saying it’s a health risk, and the town board of health can pass it because it’s a health risk, how can Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury turn a blind eye to this? How can they do it? Because they’re putting their own residents at risk.”

Asked Monday night if, given the pushback from so many Islanders, the implementation of the regulations ought to go to a town meeting vote, members of the board of health equivocated.

“The answer is we won’t know until we sit down collectively together. We have not had that discussion, and it’s not an individual decision,” Mr. Loberg said.

Chairman of the board of health Jeffrey Pratt said they were scheduled to meet with the board of selectmen to address the issue. He said they then would discuss it among themselves and go back to the board of selectmen with any decisions.

Board of health member Malcolm Boyd attended the first two hearings and said nothing.

“I’ve been here for all three meetings, and I’ve been absorbing a pretty collective ‘no’ about this entire thing from the people who have been sitting here,” Mr. Seder said Monday. “And you guys say that you are listening to us, but what do you mean by that? What is our voice going to have to do with this decision that was made? Because it’s been a no. People are not into this.”

On Monday night, Mr. Loberg appeared to have gotten the message. “We need better systems than we have now,” he said. “And I’m beginning to think we may have gotten ahead of ourselves. That’s all I can say. Not that it’s wrong. We’ve put incentives for you to want to invest in your own build-out, it’s just that you don’t have the right tools to invest with, in my opinion. If we could show that this system worked, I think we’re closer to being where we need to be if we had much better denitrification technologies. And I think right now we can’t offer you the right thing.”