Preserve community while preserving water quality

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Island coastal embayments, as have we’ve reported many times before, have issues with water quality. 

While not nearly as problematic on the Island as some parts of the state, such as Cape Cod, high nitrogen from backyard septic systems has seeped into these embayments, leading to a decline in habitat for eelgrass and other aquatic life. And there’s a fear that it will only get worse with development increasing over the past several years.

The state has finally started to pay attention, and has instituted new regulations, forcing towns on the Cape to come up with a solution. The rules require towns to produce 20-year plans to clean up each impaired coastal embayment. And there is an indication that the Vineyard could eventually face similar regulations. Whether the state will step in or not, towns on the Island have a responsibility to protect water quality. 

The challenge is clearing these bays and ponds while not continuing to inflate the high cost of living. And we think it is doable.

Towns on the Island are already starting to plan and implement wastewater projects. Oak Bluffs, likely the furthest along in planning, is expanding its wastewater treatment facility, with the expectation that homeowners not already connected to the town’s sewer system will eventually do so.

Edgartown has been working on a plan, and is holding a series of public discussions to let residents know what they could be looking at, but it’s expected the town will also be expanding its sewer system.

Tisbury, which is starting with Lake Tashmoo, is considering an alternative approach, at least compared with the traditional methods. The town — with a study to back it up from environmental consultants — wants to install hundreds of so-called innovative/alternative systems, to make backyard septic systems more effective in removing nitrogen. The advancing technology has been seen as a cost-effective way of addressing pollution in more remote areas, where it would be much more expensive to lay miles of sewer lines.

But these systems are not cheap. Installers and inspectors that we heard from say they can cost as much as $50,000.

Tisbury’s health board has a new regulation going into effect next month that will require homeowners to upgrade to these new systems at the time of the transfer of the property, meaning that the expense will likely be passed to the new homeowner.

Homes are selling for upwards of a million dollars in Tisbury, so it’s rational to ask, What’s another $50,000 on a home sale? But consider what else the Island is proposing. The housing bank bill — intended to boost the production of affordable homes — would add another 2 percent on top of a home purchase, not an insignificant amount. The health board is also considering a regulation that would require the replacement of lead pipes at the time of sale. And the Land Bank already requires a 2 percent real estate transfer tax on most land transactions.

These are all very worthy goals, and commendable, but all of these programs will continue to spike the cost of buying a home. 

This is not a question of fairness. Yes, if you live near a coastal embayment, you are responsible for protecting the environment that surrounds you. That’s fair.

But more important than fairness is to ask the question, What kind of community do we want to create?

The Cape Cod and Islands Association of Realtors recently wrote a letter to the town health board saying that Tisbury is one of the few remaining relatively affordable places to live on the Island. The association wants the board to reconsider the nitrogen regulations, saying this will make housing even less affordable on the Island. While we disagree that the board and town should reconsider, there is reason to consider how to fund this project. There are alternatives to placing the responsibility solely on the housing market.

Tisbury, in designing its Tashmoo plan, looked to the town of Wellfleet, which is also planning to reduce nitrogen pollution through the use of these innovative/alternative systems (similar to Tisbury, it is also looking at constructing sewer lines, but on a smaller scale, compared with other towns). 

But in Wellfleet, they are considering ways to remove the entire burden from the homeowner. They are proposing a funding mechanism called a betterment, which will require the homeowner to pay a chunk of the cost, and the taxpayers to take on the rest. While the town is still working on the details, the idea is to spread out the costs to the entire town.

Also important, Wellfleet’s proposal is town-run. It will be taking on the debt to pay for these installations. That means that the town can apply for — and likely receive — zero-interest loans from the state, which will further reduce the costs. 

Wellfleet, as well as several other towns on the Cape, will also likely tap into the Cape Cod and the Islands Water Protection Fund. The fund gathers revenue from a 2.75 percent excise tax on traditional lodging and short-term rentals in the communities that are members, and then a management board distributes the money to wastewater projects around the Cape.

Currently, no Vineyard town is part of that fund, but they eventually could be, and then have access to that funding source. By receiving money through the collaborative, these hefty wastewater projects will be funded partially by the vacationers staying on the Island, not the residents trying to make a life here. 

Wellfleet isn’t the only town looking to spread these costs out beyond the homeowner. Many towns on the Cape, most of them developing large sewer projects, are relying on these types of betterments, and money from the water protection fund, to help pay for the projects.

While the homeowners living near Tashmoo or the Lagoon may benefit directly from improved water quality, Tisbury as a whole — and the entire Island — benefits. Water quality is a public health concern; it’s tied to our tourism industry, and our way of life as Islanders.

Tisbury health officials should be commended for trying to address the wastewater issues for Tashmoo and Lagoon Pond. And it’s not just Tisbury trying to address a complicated and expensive issue, but municipalities across the Island.

Unlike the Cape, the Vineyard is not being forced to implement changes immediately by the state. That could give towns time to figure out funding solutions that don’t make the Island even more unattainable.

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