Pictured Above: The architectural rendering of the proposed Liberty Gardens complex in Southampton.
Amidst the celebration among community housing advocates the passage of new Community Housing Funds in four of the five East End towns on November’s ballot, Southampton Town has spent the past two months fielding public comments on three separate housing proposals that show there is still public outreach needed for affordable housing to gain a foothold in the community.
The most controversial of the three projects has been Liberty Gardens, a proposed 60-unit development behind the Southampton Full Gospel Church on County Road 39 in Tuckahoe, where apartments have been earmarked for veterans and people with mental health needs. A 104-unit proposal on South Country Road in Quiogue has managed to draw up local public support as well as concern over its impact on traffic. And Bridgehampton Civic Association members say they need more information about Southampton Town’s own proposal to build 16 units of housing when it redevelops its senior nutrition center on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike.
The Southampton Town Board heard more than three hours of public testimony from more than 60 people on a proposed zoning change and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Liberty Gardens project at its Oct. 25 meeting, before closing the hearing and accepting written comment through Nov. 8.
Concern for Independent Living, a Medford-based non-profit that has been building housing for veterans across Long Island for 50 years, has raised $38 million in funding for the project, its Executive Director, Ralph Fasano, told the Southampton Town Board at the Oct. 25 hearing.
Mr. Fasano said 30 of the units would be reserved for veterans, and taking into account prior public concerns, the project would tie into a nearby sewage treatment plant at the Hamptons Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing instead of a new sewage treatment plant.
He added that Concern would look into contracting with a private ambulette company to take the strain off of local volunteer EMS agencies, and would keep many of the trees already on site, as well as planting 125 more trees. It would also include a solar array to provide electricity to the residences. Unlike earlier draft proposals, it would not have access to neighboring side streets but would have one entrance and exit onto County Road 39.
Frank Amalfitano, the CEO of United Veterans Beacon House, which is lending its support to the project, said it would replace homeless encampments currently on the site, and that he believes people who live, work or have family in Southampton would be most likely to apply to live there.
The rental units would range in price from $1,031 to $1,532 per month in rent, with resident incomes expected to be between $41,000 and $87,000.
Numerous veterans who live in Concern’s other housing developments spoke about the way their homes have changed their lives.
“I have my friends and family nearby — I could not afford anything other than this, because of my disabilities” said John Mott, a former U.S. Army Specialist who lives in Concern’s Liberty Landing complex in Ronkonkoma. “Life has not been easy for me, but I’ve stayed optimistic.”
“We are in a crisis nobody knows about. I deal with it every day,” said Louis Falcone, a retired disabled Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Marine Corps and works for United Veterans Beacon House. “We are in a dilemma now folks, and any project that is going to help veterans get affordable housing is a must-do.”
Dawn Pierce, a 28-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran who lives in Concern’s Liberty Station complex in Port Jefferson Station, said living there had enabled her to “return to school, volunteer, get out of debt and take care of my health and medical needs.”
Linda Ashcroft, who lives in Shinnecock Hills, was one of several local people who were skeptical of the proposal.
“We need housing for working people who want to stay in the community,” she said, adding that she’s seen paperwork filed by Concern with the state saying the project will be for “persons with psychiatric disabilities, homeless individuals, veterans and low income families.”
“That’s commendable, but it’s not workforce housing,” she said, adding that the state Office of Mental Health is a major funder of the project.
“Will you import a large population of people who may not be able to work? Why are you asking us to believe otherwise?” she added.
“I love veterans. I’ve dated a lot of them,” said Elisa Thompson. “They desperately need help and housing, but this is a facility, not a housing complex…. It’s not for the local work force. It’s for people on Social Security and Veterans Disability.”
R. Morrison agreed.
“We don’t need to import veterans,” she said. “There are plenty of homeless people living in our woods now. We need a project that will give our veterans a home, and give housing to people who may be doubling and tripling up and living with friends and family.”
Some community members spoke in favor of the project, including Myron Holtz of North Sea, a retired deputy housing commissioner, who said there have been many innuendos and misinformation about the project. He said it regulations will ensure it remains affordable for at least 50 years, and that many local people who volunteer for emergency services or are essential workers are living in housing developments recently built nearby.
“I’m in favor, particularly, of this project,” he said. “It’s in a much needed area.”
Pamela Greinke, who moved to Southampton 28 years ago and moved 11 times because her rental housing was no longer available, said there are many homeless people living here who may not seem homeless, because they are staying with friends and have a roof over their heads.
She added that she recently moved to Riverhead, and her daughter, who was a volunteer with the Southampton Village Ambulance Corps and worked at Southampton Hospital, has also moved and is now providing her services in a different community.
“I’m disappointed to hear such vehement opposition,” she said. “I’ve done my best for half my life to give back to this community, and the elders in the audience have given not only to our community but to our entire nation.”
Michael Daly, a founder of East End YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) read a letter from Terence McCulley, the owner of a business neighboring the property, Peconic Beverage. Mr. McCulley wrote that his patrons are often intimidated by the people living in encampments on the vacant property next door to his business. He added that the housing development would be an improvement.
“We all knew this was going on but ignored it,” he said. “I hope you agree to this proposal to see if our community can not only clean up but help people in need.
Mr. Daly added that he personally thought the hearing had brought out “the most vile, wicked underbelly of our community,” and added that “manipulative leaders of the opposition” had scared good people into opposing the project.
“You are not elected by the ringleaders of this angry mob,” he said. “This is precisely why we’re in this housing crisis. A lot of false and melodramatic things were said here tonight, which breaks my heart and churns my stomach.”
Southampton Housing Authority Executive Director Curtis Highsmith said the hearing seemed like “deja vu all over again,” comparing it to two other affordable housing proposals that had faced community opposition, at Sandy Hollow Cove and Speonk Commons.
He said there has not been one car accident at Sandy Hollow Cove, which is not far from the Liberty Gardens location on a site that is also congested during rush hour.
He added that, while he is always an advocate for fair housing laws, his experience in affordable housing shows that most people who apply to live in such housing already live, work or have family in the community where they apply.
“Most individuals who apply for these projects live locally,” he said. “People don’t travel from Nassau County to come out here just to live in The Hamptons.”
All the board members except for Cyndi McNamara voted yes on a motion to close the public hearing. Ms. McNamara cited the potential strain on emergency services and traffic, as well as Office of Mental Health guidelines for who could live in the 30 supportive housing units, as her top concerns.
The proposals up for public hearing Nov. 22 were less controversial, though they did face some pushback.
The Quiogue project, known as “The Preserve at South Country Road,” would be on 17 acres of a 23-acre site between South Country Road and Montauk Highway. Strebel’s laundromat and dry cleaner is on the six acres set to be subdivided out of the property. A new sewage treatment system would serve both the laundromat and the housing development. The project is being proposed by the New York-based firm The NRP Group.
The Nov. 22 hearing was on both a change of zone from one-acre zoning to Multi-Family Planned Development District, allowing for six units per acre, and on the State Environmental Quality Review Act review of the project. The buildings on site would be clustered to preserve open space within the site plan.
The NRP Group’s Vice President of Development, Jonathan Gertman, said the project would have all-electric utilities and would be a mix of one and two bedroom apartments available to people “across the economic spectrum,” with financing from New York State that would require that it would be affordable for at least 50 years. He said New York’s Housing Connect program would oversee a lottery for applicants, but Southampton Town’s list of over 1,000 people waiting for affordable housing could be linked to that system.
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said he would like to ensure the apartments remain affordable for a much longer term.
“I don’t want to see this, even 50 years from now, becoming high-end summer rentals,” he said.
Tim Laube of Westhampton, who is involved with many community organizations, said he supports the project because he’s seen the dire need for workers, including at the Eastport-South Manor School District, which needs clerical and custodial staff. He added that he doesn’t believe the project will have a negative impact on schools — the district had seen a major drop in enrollment in recent years from 3,900 to 2,300 kids, as families have moved away.
“Even if this project was to produce children in every single unit, I don’t think it would make a dent” in the school’s ability to accommodate them,” he said. “You need a lot more units. You need as many as you can get.”
Southampton Business Alliance Executive Director Sheryl Heather agreed, in a letter read aloud by Rebecca Sinclair.
“This is a drop in the bucket compared to the deficit” in housing, she wrote. “As a local employer with a 40-year-old business in Hampton Bays, I’ve seen that young people are leaving in droves due to lack of housing.”
She added that she is a neighbor of the proposed project and wants to help dissuade concerns raised by other neighbors.
Barbara Weber-Floyd, who lives on South Country Road, said she was disheartened that concerns she and her neighbors had raised at two other hearings hadn’t been addressed, including the one entry and exit onto South Country Road.
“We’ve voiced our concerns and nothing has changed,” she said. “You’re talking about increasing the population of this tiny community by a dramatic amount…. I’m very disheartened. I feel like no one is listening to our concerns.”
“I’m very concerned with burdening our area with such a large development so quickly,” said Greg Meisel of Quiogue. “We absolutely need this kind of housing, but we need the rest of Southampton to share the burden as well.”
Eleanor Kobel of Westhampton Beach, who said she lives one-and-a-half miles from the site, said that “we need this very badly in our community.”
“We definitely need to make sure it can and will be offered to our local work force,” she added. “Kids are leaving all the time. They want to come back and be here when they start getting married and raising kids.”
The board agreed to close the public hearing, leaving it open for written comments through Dec. 6.
The proposal to rebuild the Bridgehampton Senior Center and add 16 units of affordable rental housing was met with mostly praise, though members of the recently formed Bridgehampton Civic Association said they had just heard about the proposal and hoped for more time to digest it.
“We just learned about this proposal a few days ago. We don’t have a position one way or another,” said the group’s treasurer, Peter Fetter. But he did question why private developers like the Farrell Building Company had not been held to their obligations to create affordable housing when they built commercial projects in the area, while the town was “using taxpayer money to build housing private developers should build.”
He asked who would be living in the housing, pointing out that seniors, as well as working people, need affordable housing.
“The town has allowed the property to deteriorate,” said Civic Association President Pam Harwood. “Are landscapers eligible or just white collar workers? The public needs to know a lot more about what your plans are.”
Town Planning and Development Administrator Janice Scherer said she’d be happy to meet with the Civic Association to outline the town’s plan, and added that the rental income from the property is intended to cover the cost of the redevelopment, and provide more money for the town’s newly approved Community Housing Fund.
She added that the site would also be getting a new, state-of-the art 3,000-square foot senior center, and a new innovative nitrogen-reducing septic system. Potential tenants would have to go through an income qualification screening, after which they would be entered into a lottery, she said, adding that “no one is precluding seniors” from entering that lottery.
“I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s always opposition to any tiny footprint of affordable housing,” said Bryony Freij, a Sag Harbor social worker and member of East End YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard). Ms. Freij also spoke in favor of the Quigue development. “I fully support this, as a resident of Sag Harbor and as a social worker. I work with a lot of folks in need of housing.”
Ms. Freij added that she believes accountability for private developers to build affordable housing is a separate conversation.
Ella Engel Snow of Sagaponack said that she has worked on an intergenerational garden at the Bridgehampton Child Care & Recreation Center, next door to the senior center, which she believes was a great thing for the community.
“I also believe intergenerational housing is a good thing,” she added.
“I think this plan is just beautiful. It could serve as a model, and we could hopefully do this in a number of locations,” said Michael Daly of East End YIMBY. “Sixteen units doesn’t usually bring a lot of opposition.”
The board agreed unanimously to close the public hearing. —BHY