by George Cork Maul
Those of us who come to visit or live on the North Fork enjoy the small town feel. What does that really mean? It means we like the open views, the calmness, the sound of the birds, the sea, gentle interactions with people who we wave at as if we know them.
It’s a very attractive contrast to the full-on intensity of New York City, and it’s a delightful respite from the suburban sprawl just west of us.
Most of the people who live on Long Island are used to sitting in traffic looking at a garbage truck somewhere on the 80 miles of the Long Island Expressway. While people who live on the East End still have mortgages to pay, somehow the rat race doesn’t seem as intense without the bus fumes, higher real estate taxes and endless strip stores. The North Fork seems to offer an alternative lifestyle, a place with a sense of place that feels warm and fuzzy.
For as long as I can remember, there has been a cry that we need more jobs on the North Fork, a cry that “we need more business and more businesses that provide jobs. We need more money out here so people working (working people) can make a living without traveling for hours to get to a place where jobs exist. We need more and better jobs so that we can ward off poverty and have a good life.”
Where is the poverty on the North Fork? The only place I can see it is in the service economy that lives out of sight and off the radar of rental permits, in over-occupied houses. Instead of fighting poverty, the new paradigm among our leaders seems to be “ward off the rich” so the middle class can still afford to live here.
The new Town of Southold Comprehensive Plan, which was ten years in the making, goes to much trouble to define the goals for the future of the North Fork. It talks about preserving farmland, water quality, ‘viewscapes’ and all those “community character” items that everybody loves.
It talks about how those things need to be balanced with economic development. I’m sorry, but I for one think that there is no way to balance economic development and community character in our current environment. I can only see the destruction of community character, as it faces the ruthless onslaught of economic development. It seems like buckets full of money are arriving on a conveyer belt, and it stuns all aspects of a place that still tries to hold on to a way of life that doesn’t consider money as the only measure of success.
Some people in the government of the Town of Southold seem to want to hold on to old ideas about small government and personal property rights. Those are good ideas. Everybody wants to think of their home as their castle, and nobody want government interfering in their personal business.
I’ve heard Scott Russell, our town supervisor, say that updating and changing our zoning code is the place where he wants to start to implement the comprehensive plan. That’s probably a good place to start, as zoning provides the rules that govern how we use the space around us and how we balance that use with our neighbors.
The problem is that those zoning changes are already overdue and the town board is moving at a snail’s pace to make changes that are laughably weak in the face of the enormous and steady stream of development that is upon us.
Some board members seem hung up on the idea of property rights and personal freedom, two great ideas that don’t belong anywhere near a zoning code.
While it’s true that zoning regulates the distances between buildings and their relationship to surrounding structures and use, that is not the only purpose of zoning. Zoning is also the framework that our social structure hangs on. The layout of our neighborhood spells out how we interact as people in the community that is around us. High hedges, McMansions, isolated housing developments, out of the way services and long commutes do not in any way add to the interactions between people that we all need.
Conventional zoning defines the zones where certain activities can occur. Manufacturing occurs in an industrial zone, affordable housing can be built in a halo zone, houses are in a residential zone and business happens in a business zone.
Perhaps we need is a new way to look at the neighborhood around us. Maybe affordable housing could go in apartments above commercial neighborhood stores and in accessary apartments on residential lots.
I have no experience as a planner, but it seems to me that the Hamlet Business zone in the Town of Southold is a genius idea. It allows for a lot of mixed uses. Another genius idea is artist housing, which has worked in Patchogue and Riverhead as an alternative to “workforce housing.” I don’t know of any working family that doesn’t engage in some craft to bring in extra money.
In hamlet centers, business certainly can happen in and around residential structures. One of the listed uses in the hamlet business zone is still residential. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it has certainly shown us that some people can work from home, and as the pandemic ends it’s sure that some people will continue to work from home, even if it’s in smaller numbers. Why would anyone travel an hour to an office building when they could stay home and do the same thing that day? Maybe a four-day work week means people in some occupations work from home on Friday.
This issue falls squarely in the realm of urban planning, which sounds like a misnomer because we are not living in an urban place. Anyone who has lived or worked in suburbia knows that the post World War II idea of a happy family living in Levittown no longer works. I don’t know if it ever really did work.
We need to be able to live quietly and safely in our own homes in the way in which we choose but we also need to be able to come out of those homes and walk to a place to get food, see other people, get medical care, recreate, and socialize. We need to work in a place that doesn’t require a long commute.
Does this sound like an impossible dream? Maybe it’s a utopian idea whose time has come. The idea that separate zones; Industrial, commercial, residential, etc. need to be isolated and separate from each other is an old and stupid idea that ignores the way that people want to live their daily lives.
Those of us who have a history that includes ancestors coming here through Ellis Island know how Long Island has developed. Grandma came over on the boat when she was a little girl and moved to Brooklyn and then to Queens. Her children ventured further east to far away farm-filled country places with exotic names like Massapequa or Babylon. Then their children went further to places like Patchogue or Rocky Point.
Where have those farms gone? It is an act of complete denial to talk about how our farmland won’t be developed when thousands of acres of it still have their development rights intact and outside money is snatching it up for ever-increasing quantities of cash.
Why has Greenport become such a popular destination and enormous draw? It’s because you can go there and function without a car! You can walk to everything and have good time doing it! Places like Greenport should be the beginning models for the future hamlet living style of the East End. It’s obvious that improvements to the model are necessary, but the issues that are plaguing Sag Harbor right now are a good model for what Greenport needs to watch out for in the near future.
New Suffolk is another example. People living there can wander around having a beautiful day if they can work from home, walk on the beach, visit the Post Office — where you inevitably run into a neighbor — or go to a restaurant or the one store. It’s idyllic until 500 out-of-town tourist arrive for the day.
Hamlet centers like Peconic, Southold, Laurel, and Cutchogue offer other models. Some seem more successful than others in providing people with what they want from their neighborhood. The Mattituck Business district is far along in becoming the strip mall of the North Fork. The long-awaited Love Lane revision model and traffic circle might provide some sense of beauty on the eastern side of Mattituck, if it ever actually happens. The Brinkmann’s Hardware Store and their right to make money in Mattituck might ruin the whole plan when their lawsuit is resolved in federal court.
On a recent Zoom meeting, I heard Chris Talbot, a building inspector in the Village of Southampton and a former member of the Southold Town Board, tell a combined group of Town of Southold Civic Associations that the stunning development of the North Fork so far is only the beginning, if we compare our plight with the development that is occurring on the South Fork. Why does our local government seem to ignore the writing on the wall that the South Fork shows us? How are we different? We’re not. It’s just short sightedness, and lack of communication with the South Fork governments, which have been dealing with exactly the same issues for decades. Arrogance and ignorance are not a good combination when it comes to planning for the future.
When affordable housing developers and the Southold Town Board get together at a public meeting and start talking about how each hamlet should be assigned a certain amount of affordable housing, or when they talk about buying back sanitary credits so that we can contaminate the groundwater further in the name of multifamily workforce housing, they are barking up the wrong tree. NIMBY is alive and well, and is the most common reason why projects don’t get approved.
Would it be too much to ask public planners in our government to come up with ideas about how our hamlet zoning fits together that looks more like a future that incorporates the business that we need with the warm and fuzzy idea of a small town?
Can we have a small town feel with a general store and a place to gather when you’re on an afternoon break from your work and need to run some nearby errands before you get back to your livelihood and your kids?
We have only one last chance to keep the North Fork from becoming just like the rest of Long Island, and the time is now. And that’s how a small town feels.