A plan to put 16 units of affordable housing on the site of the former Knights of Columbus Hall on Depot Lane in Cutchogue has neighbors seeing red, after the Southold Town Board held an Oct. 20 public hearing on whether to change the zoning of the property to allow affordable housing there.

The two-acre lot, which currently includes a parking lot, a large backyard and a 3,500-square-foot building that had been used for catered affairs and community meetings, is zoned for two-acre residential use, which would be changed to an affordable housing district if the town board agrees to the zoning change.

It is currently owned by North Fork Community Club LLC.

Southold Town, and much of the East End, is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis made all the more dire by the pandemic, as the cost of property has soared here while city escapees scoop up property.

The project has the backing of the Southold Town Planning Department, which stated in a letter to the town board that affordable housing on the site meets the goals of the town’s newly adopted comprehensive plan, including a goal of disbursing affordable housing throughout the town — no affordable housing has yet been built in the hamlet of Cutchogue. 

The planning department also pointed out that the site is near amenities like public transportation and shopping, though it is not within the hamlet center, and the town has had a difficult time in the past attracting developers when it has put out requests for affordable housing.

Neighbors, however, banded together to collect 200 names on a petition against the zone change over the course of four days.

While the project is slated to include a nitrogen-reducing septic system, one of its neighbors, Bruce Brownawell, an environmental chemist and professor at Stony Brook University who is on the board of Stony Brook’s Center for Clean Water Technology, said he is concerned about the wells of houses downstream from the project, because the new septic systems “are not particulary good systems even for nitrogen, and they’re not designed to take out other contaminants.”

Mr. Brownawell, who owns The Farmhouse Bed & Breakfast not far from the Knights of Columbus site, said he and his wife “paid a premium for our property knowing about the two-acre minimum. The character we enjoyed might be threatened by higher density.”

Christine Urwand, who grew up on Evergreen Drive off of Depot Lane, came back home to live with her parents when the pandemic hit and has been looking for her own house in Cutchogue to no avail. She said she and her brothers would definitely submit applications for affordable housing.

“We need support for all of us young aspiring professionals trying to move back to the community we love,” she said.

Michael Malkush, who lives on Depot Lane, where he is raising his twin 11-year-old grandsons, said he is against rezoning, not against affordable housing.

“Zoning prevents new development from hurting existing residences,” he said, adding that he believes Depot Lane is a dangerous thoroughfare and he is concerned about the precedent the housing would set for several large parcels of unprotected farmland on the west side of Depot Lane.

Stephen Russo, who also lives on Depot Lane, said that, if there were 3.5 people in each unit in the complex, two percent of the population of Cutchogue would live on the Knights of Columbus site.

“That’s triple the density of Harvest Pointe,” he said, referring to a much-derided 124-unit condominium complex currently under construction just to the west of Depot Lane.

His wife, Christina Russo, questioned why no plans for the project are on file with the town’s Planning Department.

“I’m all for affordable housing, but this is private money, a for-profit enterprise, being suggested here,” she said. “I think there’s sort of a smokescreen going on — they say its for first responders, teachers, youth… but what they’re actually building, we don’t know.”

Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski, who lives in Cutchogue and was formerly a member of the Southold Town Board, said people who live in hamlets throughout town had worked for years to define hamlet locus, or “halo” zones, just outside of existing business districts, where more intense development could be allowed. This project is not in a halo zone.

Mr. Krupski said the zone change would constitute “spot zoning,” not unlike the zoning change that had allowed Harvest Pointe to be built.

“This application for spot zoning doesn’t even have to be considered,” he said. “The impact of spot zone behind the post office (Harvest Pointe) is going to be felt more and more.”

A man named Michael who said he worked in the food service industry in Greenport said people who work in many small businesses on the North Fork cannot find a place to live here.

“We don’t have affordable housing options,” he said. “Small local businesses don’t have a great pool of people they can hire to work in these restaurants. People who work in those industries can’t afford to live out here.”

“It’s great that we have a robust group of people moving here from the city, but there’s a working class group of people who can’t afford to live anywhere,” he added. “I’ve already seen many friends leave the area because of that, or have absolutely insane commutes.”

“I think this location is a great opportunity,” he added. “I think the resistance to putting a housing complex there is a little extreme, given the densely populated area and the fact that it’s smack in  the middle of two highways.”

Joe and Adrian Fuchs, who live on Depot Lane, said they’d spoken to about two dozen people who aren’t opposed to affordable housing, but are “violently opposed to rezoning residential property to multifamily use. They see that as a threat to their neighborhood. Contemplating this change really changes the whole character of what Southold is about.”

Attorney Bill Goggins of Mattituck, who is representing the project, said the Knights of Columbus had been operating at the site since 1980 — well before many of the two-ace lots were subdivided and the houses on Depot Lane were built. He said the hall had held weddings, pancake breakfasts and “all kinds of events connected with the Catholic Church.”

“That space was operating for 40 years until a decrease in use recently. The density of the site has always been there,” he said.

Mr. Goggins added that when the housing is complete, it will be heavily landscaped and the complex won’t be seen from the street. He said there are numerous businesses and non-residential uses on the one-mile stretch of Depot Lane from the Main Road to the North Road, including a restaurant, a gym, a book publishing company, a produce shipper, a Catholic church and a boat storage facility. 

“This is not really a big project when you come down to it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to have any adverse impact on property values or water quality…. No matter where you put it, there’s always going to be opposition.”

“The town created this affordable housing district as a floating zone so they could sprinkle them throughout the town,” he added. This is so people not living in basements…. This protects the most vulnerable, and young kids who get pushed out of the community.

The board closed the public hearing but did not take action on the application.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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