Pictured Above: New construction on the North Fork has begun to echo the extravagance of The Hamptons, dwarfing longstanding modest homes.

The Southold Town Board voted unanimously Tuesday evening to limit the size of houses that can be built within its boundaries, in response to rampant residential development in recent years.

The board adopted the code changes after more than an hour of comments that were mostly supportive, as residents shared their fears that North Fork development patterns are starting to follow in the path of the Hamptons.

According to the new restrictions, on a quarter-acre lot, the maximum house size will now be 2,100 square feet, while the maximum house size on lots between one and two acres will be 5,100 square feet, plus five percent of the area in excess of one acre, with a maximum of 7,100 square feet. The maximum for lots larger than five acres would be 10,100 square feet plus one percent of any additional lot area. Larger houses that have already been built or are currently under construction will be considered pre-existing, non-conforming after the law goes into effect.

Some residents who spoke at the public hearing questioned whether the proposal went far enough, including George Krug of New Suffolk, who pointed to several new large waterfront houses along New Suffolk Avenue as examples of the type of construction he hopes to see limited, including one that he said looks like “an Amazon warehouse.”

“I don’t have enough information to know if the ‘Amazon warehouse’ could be built under this new rule,” he said. “I’m concerned about the changing character of New Suffolk and Southold as a whole. The curse you hear around Southold is it’s starting to look like the Hamptons.”

Land use attorney Patricia Moore, one of the few people who spoke against the code change, said she believes the law will just make more applicants plead their cases to the town’s already overburdened Zoning Board of Appeals.

“This law was unnecessary,” she said. “In theory, it’s all very nice, but in practice it’s not nice… Right now the ZBA is crazy — there’s a line you have to stand in to get a hearing. I wouldn’t want to wish that on any of your neighbors. You apply this to your own house and you might find you’re non-conforming.”

Drianne Benner of the Orient Association, who is also the coordinator of the North Fork Civics coalition of civic associations, told the board that the value of homes is based on the value of not just the house and the land, but also on the community it’s in.

“It’s highly dependent on location,” she said. “What has created so much value here is this town’s beautiful and unspoiled nature. This is what draws people here. It is part of the heart and soul of this town. It creates demand and value.”

Preserving the current character of the community, she said, “will only enhance the value of residents’ homes.”

Architect Barbara Friedman of Orient said she was initially sympathetic to concerns about limiting house size, but she believes the code adopted Tuesday night is “the least restrictive of any East End town.”

“I believe it’s too lenient on parcels above two acres, but I hope the town board will take action tonight,” she said. “It’s the first step in protecting the town from the escalation of the McMansion plague.”

Tom Stevenson of Orient had the opposite view.

“I think the focus should be on properties two acres and smaller,” he said. “The brush is too broad to change on every residential lot, which includes all the farmland in town. Most of the complaints have been on small lots in tight areas.”

He added that he perceived that the process of drafting the law had been in private meetings with the civic groups — which isn’t the case.

“The process has all been out in the open,” said Town Supervisor Scott Russell, adding that the civic groups, while they gave input, did not draft the code. “It’s been a bit clumsy at times, but it’s been out in the open.”

Jaine Mehring of Amagansett, who has started an organization called “Build in Kind” to encourage South Fork builders to build in keeping with the character of their neighborhoods. She’d spent time in East Hampton back as far as the 1960s and owned her house in Amagansett for 20 years.

“I’ve carried with me indelible memories of what East Hampton looked like, what it felt like, the magic of the East End light illuminating vast open spaces,” she said. “I want to share with you my context to understanding the impact of ongoing development.”

She spoke to the effects of “rabid construction activity” on the South Fork on the local community, let by a “horde of speculative builders and developers.”

“Nothing in this legislation is extreme. You can still build big houses,” she said of Southold’s code changes. “It’s about striving for balance between individual rights and the rights of the community.”

“It’s fundamentally changed the character of so many communities,” said Mr. Russell, the town supervisor, before voting for the proposed change. “Every board member here felt the need to get something done.”

“I gotta tell you, if I proposed this 20 years ago, you’d have found my body in a shallow grave in the pine barrens somewhere, but things have really changed,” he added.

“We’re committed to changing this as needed,” said Deputy Town Supervisor Jill Doherty. “Some say we’re not doing enough, but we need to start here, work with the builders, and hopefully they can help us understand what their issues are.”

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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