Several historic churches are for sale in Southold Town, and the town board is looking to allow zoning changes that will keep those churches open to the public, even if they are residentially zoned.
The town board held a public hearing on the changes at their March 10 meeting. The full text of the proposed law is available online here.
If approved, the law as originally drafted would allow new owners to apply to the town to allow artisan studios and workshops, community facilities including schools and libraries, garden centers, museums, bed and breakfasts, farmers markets, exhibit halls, day care facilities and small business offices (excluding retail) in the existing buildings, which would be rezoned in a “Historic Preservation District”.
In exchange for the increased use, the owner of the property would be required to keep the building’s façade intact.
Town board members went over the proposed law one last time at their work session this morning.
“This came about because there are these churches for sale, and in some cases the zoning can incentivize the demolition of structures,” said Town Supervisor Scott Russell. “This particular zoning attaches to the building itself so the investor has to leave the building intact.”
Town Planner Mark Terry, who has spearheaded the effort to draft the new law, said applicants would have to go to the town clerk and the town’s Historic Preservation Commission, after which the planning board would have to approve the concept plan. Then, the town board would hold a public hearing and vote on the proposal.
Assistant Town Attorney Stephen Kiely said the building would need to be landmarked and the owner would have to come in for a presubmission conference with the planning department before going through the process of applying for the zone change.
“If they say they want to put a Home Depot there, the planning board can say ‘go take a walk,'” he said. “If it’s a more intense use, it’s still going to be subject to site plan review [after the zoning is changed].”
“There will be plenty of opportunity for the community in and around the area to weigh in,” said Mr. Russell.
In areas where churches are already in business-zoned districts, like the Southold United Methodist Church in downtown Southold, this new tool may not give developers an incentive to not tear the existing building down, said Councilman Bob Ghosio.
“If you have a church in a residential zone, you’re very limited,” said Mr. Russell “The idea is to encourage people to buy it. It gives you new uses with the caveat that you preserve the historic integrity of the structure.”
“We already have a very compelling project for one of them,” said Mr. Russell who said he couldn’t comment at length due to the real estate negotiations. “It’s everything we had envisioned.”
“People need to know it’s going to be a viable investment or people are not going out of their way to buy a church.”
At the March 10 hearing, Robert Dunn of Peconic questioned the wisdom of allowing the sale of power equipment and machinery in churches converted to garden centers.
“I don’t know if we want to leave that much legal room,” he said. “It could have the appearance of a used car lot.”
North Fork United Methodist Church pastor Tom McCloud applauded the proposal, but asked if the town could look into using Community Preservation Fund money to purchase façade easements on the buildings, giving new owners of churches an incentive to keep the building intact.
“This is going to give us an incredible tool to preserve what I think is an endangered species, and something that I think makes Southold special,” said Robert Harper, who sits on the town’s Historic Preservation Commission.
Board members agreed to look into striking the section of the law that involved sale of machinery and power equipment and vote on the amended bill at a later date.