In Quickly Changing Southold, Comp Plan Seen as Last Hope

Pictured Above: Assistant Southold Town Planning Director Mark Terry and Planning Director Heather Lanza at the July 29 hearing

Since Southold Town began work on its Comprehensive Plan Update in 2009, the town has held 64 public meetings and drafted 13 chapters, culminating in a 292-page document and 308 pages of appendices that are now ready for the public to review.

And in that time, a great deal has changed in Southold, which has been experiencing a boom in tourism and second homeownership, and all the development pressures that accompany those changes.

About 90 residents packed into town hall for the first public hearing on the completed plan before the Southold Town Planning Board July 29, and most who spoke were visibly upset at how quickly Southold is changing, including some very young residents, a rare sight at Southold government meetings.

Marina DeLuca graduated from Greenport High School in 2016 and is now a biology and music major at Union College.

“I was 11 when this plan was started,” she said. “I’m here on behalf of a lot of young people who normally don’t come to these meetings. The younger generation has seen these changes, and they are shocking to us.”

Marina DeLuca

“Traffic on the North Road used to mean somebody got stuck behind a tractor,” she added. “Now we’re stuck behind a parade of SUVs that don’t know where they’re going.”

“The change in three years has been rapid and faster than I feel many of us are ready or prepared for,” she added. “I have to stress the urgency of implementing its (the comprehensive plan’s) goals.”

Ms. DeLuca shared several specific concerns: That the woods she played in growing up are turning into new developments, the quiet of the North Fork is constantly interrupted by leaf blowers and construction work, and that the town’s dark skies legislation isn’t being enforced and she can no longer see the stars at night.

Along with many other speakers, she also said she is concerned about the town’s water supply. She said the average person can survive three days without water, but households here are using an average of 559 gallons of water per day.

“We’re all relying on a sole source aquifer. We’re well over the withdraw rate needed to properly recharge water into the aquifer,” she said, adding that this will eventually lead to saltwater intrusion into the town’s water supply.

“Take this seriously, for my generation,” she said. 

A 22-year-old summer resident who has been coming to the North Fork all her life, who gave her name as Stephanie, said she spent all of her childhood in the city itching to come out here.

“If we all weren’t working such wacky hours, there would be more young people here,” she said.

Catherine Creedon, 21, of Greenport, said the North Fork is rapidly turning into a place for “the really rich and the people who work for them. The middle class is completely disappearing…. People who graduated in the past 10 years can’t stay here.”

Anne Murray, Bob Hanlon and Ira Haspel addressed the planning board.

“We’ve lost affordable housing in the hamlet. Homes once occupied by families are now short term rentals,” agreed East Marion Community Association President Anne Murray, who added that huge houses that look like they belong in the Hamptons are cropping up throughout East Marion, a thin sliver of land just before Orient that she said has a tiny drinking water aquifer now at risk from salt water intrusion, and where traffic is at some times unbearable due to the worldwide popularity of a lavender farm there.

“How we deal with these issues is vital to the future of Southold,” she said.

The public hearing before the planning board was the first time for residents to make on-the-record comments on the plan. The Southold Town Board is planning to hold a public hearing later this year, but has not yet set a date.

The town board will hold six informational meetings on the plan in August on the following dates and locations: Thursday, Aug. 1 at 7 p.m. at the Peconic Lane Recreation Center; Wednesday, Aug. 7 at 11:45 a.m. at the Fishers Island Town Board Day at the Fishers Island Community Center; Thursday, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Mattituck Presbyterian Church; Saturday, Aug. 17 at 9 a.m. at the East Marion Firehouse; Tuesday, Aug. 20 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Cutchogue Library, and Saturday, Aug. 31 at 9 a.m. at Poquatuck Hall in Orient.

The plan does not include any zoning changes, but rather provides a series of recommendations for future zoning changes, which could be considered by the town board through its usual process, which includes a public hearing on that specific zoning change.

Planning Board member Jim Rich was quick to point out that the plan “does not change any current town laws, planning or zoning,” adding that whenever there was an argument over a word they chose “the less authoritative word” because the document isn’t a law.

He added that the crowd gathered was just a sliver of the town’s population of more than 22,000 people, who may have other opinions.

“There are things in this plan I feel very strongly about,” he said. “Other people might disagree with them.”

Planning Board members Donald Wilcenski and Martin Sidor listened to testimony.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell gave brief opening remarks, telling the public that, even though the plan has been in the works for 10 years, the town board has been taking its suggestions into account when drafting code changes throughout the process.

Marc Sokol of Mattituck, who serves as President of Community Action Southold Town, which provides food, housing, utility, job training and other assistance to low-income residents, said the boon in the tourism economy has created a lot of low wage, seasonal jobs, which has further burdened his organization. 

He asked the town to consider raising the share of federal Community Development Block Grant money it gives to CAST, which is currently $7,500 per year — about 1 percent of the organization’s budget. He also asked the town to develop a proactive plan to help low-paid workers become self sufficient, and seek input on the town’s Human Services programs directly from underserved communities like CAST’s clients.

George Maul of New Suffolk asked that Southold look at how other East End towns have dealt with development issues.

“A lot of people are moving from the South Fork to the North Fork, for various reasons,” he said.

Group for the East End President Bob DeLuca, who lives in East Marion and is Marina DeLuca’s father, urged that the plan be adopted and implemented.

“The South Fork seems like the apocalypse, and in some ways it is, but efforts they’ve made there are the reason why the things they have saved there have been saved,” he said. “If you live here, you can feel it coming. We and Shelter Island are what’s left. It’s just a matter of time before this town gets slammed with development it can’t manage.”

“The main protection you have is a strong comprehensive plan,” he said. “It is a plan that was done better because it was done in house, but it took longer to do it.”

Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski, who lives in Cutchogue, agreed that the plan was better because it was done in house.

“Don’t rush this, after 10 years,” he said, asking the town representatives to take their time listening to and incorporating public comment. If the plan was drafted by consultants who weren’t familiar with Southold, instead of the in-house planing staff, “it probably would have been dismissed and not adopted,” he said.

“The community outreach was really well done,” he added. “I’ve seen towns in other places on Long Island, and they can change like that. You want to keep the character of this town? We’ve all gotta work towards that goal.”

Randy Wade of Greenport said she was shocked by some of the buildout analysis figures in the plan’s land use and zoning chapter, which show that just a small fraction of the town’s potential commercial and industrial development has already been put in place.

According to the plan, just 24 percent of the town’s potential commercial and industrial development has been done, while the town’s residential development could increase by 32 percent — about 4,378 homes. About 40 percent of the houses in the town are considered seasonally occupied.

Lisa DeLuca of East Marion has lived in a subdivision known as Pebble Beach Farms for two decades, and she said she was told when they moved in they couldn’t cut down all the trees.

She was excited to learn this, but in recent years, owners of other lots in the subdivision began clear-cutting them in anticipation of construction, and she found out there was actually no legal mechanism to keep them from cutting trees.

She added that a neighbor, on the advice of a landscaper, cut down all the evergreen trees on the property because they were told they attracted ticks, and replanted with a hedgerow that is a magnet for deer, and that many of her neighbors “spray their trees up and down with pesticides.”

“I’m terribly afraid something like Route 58 is going to happen to the North Road,” she said. “The South Fork has gone through this. Other communities have been able to do what it is you’re trying to do. Time is of the essence here. We have to do this. Please don’t give up.”

Ira Haspel, an architect and biodynamic farmer in Southold, shared Ms. DeLuca’s concern about pesticides.

“Hazardous and toxic materials need more attention,” he said. “The board can help eliminate them from our soil and water.”

He added that the plan could promote organic methods of farming, and the elimination of toxic materials used on town parks and by the town’s highway department.

“I read all of the plan… I want to thank the town. It was an enormous task. It is not perfect. There are many little problems with it, some big problems,” he said. “Drinkable water is the highest priority, in my regard.”

Bob Hanlon of Orient, a Democratic candidate for Southold Town Board, said the town “is running out of available water and the plan acknowledges that.”

But, he said, “that is not what this town is currently doing. In fact, the town recently cancelled all future meetings of its Water Conservation Committee, claiming that its goals had been met.”

He added that he believes the town should be more transparent in the way it schedules code committee meetings, where board members hash out potential code changes before bringing them before the public for a hearing.

He added that a recent proposed zone change regarding accessory apartments “could make nearly every house in the town a two-family dwelling, and could effectively eliminate the ability to enforce the affordable housing eligibility rules. This came up publicly for the first time at a town board work session, and that same night proceeded directly to being scheduled for a public hearing in August.”

Conservation biologist Louise Harrison, the New York Outreach Coordinator for Save the Sound’s Plum Island campaign, said she’s already seen the power of Southold Town’s “visionary zoning” when, six years ago, the town zoned Plum Island so that it could be used only for research and conservation.

The island, which is owned by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security but is within the boundaries of Southold Town, is currently slated to be sold once the U.S. Department of Agriculture moves all the functions of its animal disease laboratory to a new laboratory in Manhattan, Kansas. The island had never been zoned prior to Southold’s decision to zone it, which effectively put a stop to it being developed for any other use than its current use by any future owner.

“This is something that people all the way in Washington, D.C. know about right now,” said Ms. Harrison. “Do you see what you’ve set in motion on one sliver of town? Because of your visionary work, you’re now widely known up and down the East Coast.”

“It was strong and bold and the right thing to do,” she added. “It has set into motion a lot of good work.”

The planning board closed the public hearing, but will be accepting written comment on the plan through Aug. 5, after which it will provide information gathered at the public hearing to the town board as it works to adopt the plan.

“Once adoption happens, the most exciting part begins, that’s implementation,” said Southold Town Planning Director Heather Lanza. “I’m so excited about this, I can’t tell you. The first thing is to set priorities. Once they’re set, and I hope it’s a public process, the town can take action to implement goals. The action has to be based on the priorities of the community and available funding and resources.”

All of the documents associated with the plan are online at www.southoldtownny.gov/123/Comprehensive-Plan. Paper copies are available to be checked out for short periods of time at all of the libraries in Southold Town.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, 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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