The public will continue to have a chance to weigh in in July on a proposed 24-unit affordable housing complex on Route 48 in Cutchogue, after the Southold Town Board agreed June 21 to hold open a public hearing on the project.
The town board, which would need to rezone the agriculturally zoned property to an affordable housing district in order for the project to proceed to the Southold Planning Board, heard about three hours of testimony on the zoning change at its June 21 meeting, and the reaction from those who spoke was mixed, with many people passionately arguing that the project is greatly needed, while others argued that the location, surrounded by farm fields, was not ideal.
The project, called Cutchogue Woods, would consist of four buildings, roughly 7,000 square feet each, on 5.66 acres of wooded land. A 60-foot buffer of woods would remain between the complex and Route 48, while 40 percent of the property, on the south side facing neighboring farm fields, would be preserved.
Rona Smith, a long-time advocate for attainable housing on the North Fork who was instrumental in creating The Cottages in Mattituck, an ownership-based affordable housing complex, purchased the property earlier this year. Ms. Smith, who is a past chair of Southold Town’s Housing Advisory Commission, has partnered with David Gallo, president of Georgica Green Ventures (GGV), which has built four affordable housing complexes on the South Fork and is involved with several projects in Riverhead, to build and manage this project.
“People ask me how I was motivated to go out and buy a piece of land — I believe that, if you have any power at all, you need to use that power for positive ends,” said Ms. Smith at the June 21 public hearing. “I’ve been watching the situation with housing, with workers not being able to find a place to live and so many sub-habitable places that people live in that we turn a blind eye to. I’ve been touched over the years by people coming to the Housing Advisory Commission being evicted from places that they thought were their permanent homes…. We really need to make our work force permanent members of our community, and we need housing that respects the tenants who live there. I feel very lucky that David Gallo and GGV have stepped up to work with me on this.”
Mr. Gallo responded to community concerns that, due to federal Fair Housing Act rules that require projects that take government funding not restrict who can live there, by saying his company’s local marketing has ensured that local people make up the majority of residents in the communities he’s built — 80 percent overall, with the highest being 84 percent of the residents of Gansett Meadows in Amagansett. In the 37 apartments there, he said, are now living 58 employees of local businesses in East Hampton Town.
He said that Cutchogue Woods would be the smallest project his company has worked on, but it is about the average distance from a hamlet center as other projects he’s worked on.
“If you want workforce housing, you can’t build it on Park Avenue,” he said. “It’s really expensive to buy land in hamlet centers. There are constraints. It’s not because Rona and I don’t want to do it. The funding process with the state won’t allow it.”
Attorney Gail Wickham, whose family owns agricultural land just to the west of the proposed development, didn’t agree with that argument.
“I’ve been doing zoning for over 40 years in this town,” she said. “The core concept of zoning is the uses must be appropriate to the area in which they are located. High density goes in specific areas of town. This project completely ignores those basic concepts. It doesn’t adjoin any residential development…. This is one of the most densely concentrated farmland areas in the town, and farming is not necessarily compatible with residential growth. There’s always a lot of tension between them.”
“Housing, work and the local economy are all intimately connected. We need a sustainable workforce for essential services,” said Housing Advisory Commission Co-Chair Patricia Lutzky. The Commission, which “spent many hours as a group vetting this project,” supports the project, she said.
As a private citizen, she added, “we’re in a housing crisis. When faced with a crisis we need to think outside the box…. There just isn’t enough property in the HALO Zones (surrounding hamlet centers) to make a dent in the current housing crisis.”
Anthony Sannino, whose family’s winery, Sannino Vineyard, is across Route 48 from the proposed complex, said he didn’t understand how the town could allow two parking spaces for every unit in the housing complex when his winery was only approved for 39 spaces. He added that he was concerned about the impact on the water table and of septic systems installed at the site, and about the source of fuel to heat the buildings.
The project is slated to be connected to public water, an innovative alternative septic system, and to be heated and cooled using heat pumps, according to the developers.
“Every day, community members walk through our door with housing issues, and more often than not, we say ‘sorry, we can’t help you. They leave our office in tears,” said Cathy Demerato, Executive Director of CAST, which provides services to people in need throughout Southold Town. “They end up leaving a community they love, or they move into inadequate and unsafe housing. This is something we should all be concerned about. This reflects on us as a community, and it’s often a tragedy waiting to happen.”
She added that CAST also fields phone calls every day from employers looking for workers they can’t find, and “the problem is growing.”
Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski, who is also a farmer in Cutchogue, said the county would consider the property for acquisition through its land preservation program.
“In 100 years, we won’t be here, but what will this community look like?” he asked. “I know the builder. They’re very nice people and they have good reputations… This applicant could come in and enter the land preservation program.”
Mr. Krupski also read a letter from Gwynn Schroeder, also a Cutchogue resident, who serves as his Legislative Aide.
“I support the development of affordable housing, and I appreciate the passion of the applicants,” she wrote, but added that the siting of the project is “contrary to smart growth principles” and is anithetical to the town’s goal of “maintaining a semblance of rural character,” adding that the project should be in a hamlet center.
Nick Krupski, who is Al Krupski’s son and a Southold Town Trustee, said he thought it was ironic that “Cutchogue Woods would destroy the woods.”
“I work in groundwater. The Suffolk County Water Authority has a pump station almost touching this location,” he said, adding that “the developers cannot guarantee that locals will get the housing.’
“They’re using Southold’s affordable housing issue to force their housing as a Trojan horse that does not belong here,” he said, adding that if people want rental housing, there’s plenty being built in Riverhead.
“Rental apartments keep poor people poor,” he added.
Amanda Akron, who went to Southold High School then went to college in New York City before getting her master’s degree in theater and education, is now back home working at a restaurant in Greenport.
“I moved home because that’s where my family was,” she said. “I’m not the only young person out here…. As a 27-year-old who’d like to come home, I can’t. I currently am living in a restored and renovated 1967 Airstream. I would like to be a person who teaches your children. I’m an art director at a local summer camp. I would like to be someone who gives back, but I can’t do that when I can’t be warm in the winter.”
“I hope you approve it. There’s just no way that young people like myself can stay here,’ she said.
“There’s nothing more important than farmland, than our water quality and our beaches, but if the people who grew up here, the people who clean your houses and plant your trees and do anything in the service industry can’t live here, Greenport’s going to be like it was when I was a kid, when if someone said do you want to go to Greenport, you said, ‘no, not really.,'” said Nicki Durrell. “We can’t sustain it. Businesses will close.”
“If you’re not going to approve this, what will you approve?” she asked. “People work two to three jobs just to stay here. How do you have a community when there are 1,000 AirBNBs here. How do you explain to people, ‘don’t rent your house for $1,000 a night. Rent it to a regular person for $2,000 a month. I get it. But something has to give. I don’t know what. That’s not really my job, but you’re elected officials.”
Farmer and vineyard owner Russ McCall, who owns property adjoining Cutchogue Woods, said he started selling development rights on his property to the town about 30 years ago “so we won’t look like Levittown or Huntington… if you come back in 1,000 years, it’s going to be the same. It’s going to be there. Period.”
“It’s a huge mistake to dump…. to say yes we do need this housing, and then say at the last minute we need something so that we approve it,” he said. “They’re all in business to make money. Nice or not nice, developers are developers.”
“I’m all for affordable housing. I have adult children living with me, so I know first-hand the need for this,” said Lisa Sannino, who co-owns Sannino Vineyard. She added that she was opposed to the project because the developers would be disturbing land and trees, that the project could set a precedent for future zone changes and that it could affect quality of life.
“Is there a guarantee that the residents are local?” she added.
Fred Andrews, who now lives in South Jamesport but said he used to live in the hamlet center of Cutchogue, said that even where he lived you needed a car because it would be a one-mile walk to the grocery store, King Kullen.
“If we deny this change, it will die in its cradle,” he said, adding that once the town board approves the zone change, the details of the project can be hashed out before the planning board. “This is vitally needed in Southold.”
“I am astounded at this gift,” said Sandra Benedetto, who serves on Southold’s Anti-Bias Task Force. “I would like to applaud Rona Smith. I think what you are doing is an amazing thing.”
Jaine Mehring of Amagansett, said that her community was initially very cautious about Georgica Green’s Gansett Meadows development there.
“It was built and has become a great, essential and integrated part of our community,” she said. “If you don’t adopt rational and balanced guidelines for house size and development, and do not get behind community housing projects, you will not be able to protect agriculture, natural resources, rural quality of life and other imperatives. Even though this might seem like it’s too tense, with out it, long term residents, the next generation, and people who live and work in your community will not be able to live in your town. Your community will be decimated. I am speaking from your future.”
“The humans are an important part of the character of the East End,” said Michael Daly, a real estate agent and founder of the group East End YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard).
“The statement is always ‘this is not the right place for it,'” he said of hearings on attainable housing that he’s been to all over the East End. “I have not heard one person recommend any other place it could go. It’s like playing whack a mole. Where is this going to go? This is a very appropriate place for it. We love trees too, but we love people.”
“I’m a Libra. I like balance,” said Mr. Gallo as the hearing was tabled for the day. “We’re committed to this process and working with the community.”
The public hearing continues at the Southold Town Board’s July 5 meeting, which is at 7 p.m.