Lively debate on community character of the North Fork

After a poorly attended first meeting two weeks ago on the second chapter of Southold’s new comprehensive plan, residents packed a lively second session Thursday night to discuss what’s so special about Southold, and what should be done to keep it that way.

The second chapter addresses Southold’s community character, paying special attention to the town’s scenic vistas and historic, natural and cultural resources.

Residents who turned out Thursday night broke into five discussion groups, each of which generated a slew of suggestions for what the town could do to preserve its character.

Architect Glynnis Berry, whose group discussed preserving scenic resources and enacting design standards for new buildings, said her group wanted to “not just preserve, but reverse” the downward trend of scenic areas in the town. She said that parts of Mattituck, for example, are filled with strip malls, but the character of the community could be changed to make the hamlet seem more like the village on the edge of the water that it is.

Among the changes her group proposed was narrowing Route 48 to two lanes between the current start of the four-lane highway at Cox Neck Lane and Wickham Avenue, providing a safer, more direct conduit for people to walk across Route 48 from Love Lane to the Mattituck Inlet. Her group also suggested well-designed parks, with pushcart vendors and a reason for people to meet there, as opposed to parks with Victorian gazebos set in areas where people would not naturally congregate, as is the case with Southold’s Silversmith’s Corner.

Ms. Berry added that her group was opposed to “form-based” codes that provide cookie-cutter templates for communities, when codes should be designed on a street-by-street basis that takes into account the scale and proportion of properties in existing communities.

“Southampton Village has design protocols based on what’s there,” she said. “Every street is different. With a form-based code, it becomes monotonous, like Disneyland.”

The community character chapter also calls for the town’s Landmark Preservation Commission to be given more authority over preserving the town’s cultural resources, including historic buildings and a set of 23 mile markers along Southold’s roads that were placed there by Benjamin Franklin when he served as the colonial postmaster.

Chairman Jim Grathwohl said he believes the commission already does many of the things the plan suggests it be charged with.

He urged town planners to take steps to make Southold a Certified Local Government in a preservation program run by the National Parks Service and the New York State Office of Historic Preservation. If Southold received that designation, he said, the town could go about designating historic structures and would be able to limit how the buildings can be altered. Without becoming a Certified Local Government, the town needs to rely on homeowners to request that their properties be designated as historic landmarks.

Southold principal planner Mark Terry’s group discussed managing existing scenic resources. He said a major concern of his group was the debate over the impact greenhouses have on scenic vistas. While the public does not consider them a part of traditional agriculture, greenhouses are becoming more necessary for farmers to run competitive businesses.

“Is a greenhouse appropriate or necessary? There’s a huge reactionary discussion. It comes up again and again,” Mr. Terry said.
He said his group also felt it was important that planners take into consideration the views of land as seen from the water.

Lauren Grant of New Suffolk said she and several other attendees were concerned the plan as drafted makes no mention of keeping the New Suffolk post office, when it does encourage the continued service of post offices in other small hamlets.

Democratic Town Board candidate Marie Domenici’s group focused on preserving working landscapes and waterscapes and the people who interact with them. She said her group wanted the chapter to address antiquated septic systems, lack of clearing restrictions outside the site plan process and limiting cell phone towers.

Leroy Heyliger, who serves as deacon of Unity Baptist Church on Factory Avenue in Mattituck, was part of Ms. Domenici’s group. He said he believes the town should follow Colorado’s example and have stricter littering fines. He brought with him several photographs of a dumpster behind Mattituck Plaza across from the church, which he said is always overflowing with garbage when parishioners arrive at church on Sunday mornings.

“Something has to be done,” he said.

Howard Meinke of Mattituck, also a member of Ms. Domenici’s group, said the town needs to include the Peconic Estuary’s significance in the town’s community character.

“We have six creeks that are closed 12 months a year,” he said. “We’re losing a lot.”

Dan Durett of Greenport said he believes the historical information in the chapter should focus more on African-American contributions to the community. He said the most prominent mention of local African-Americans in the chapter is the slave graveyard on Narrow River Road in Orient.

“I would like to know what we did before we were in the graveyard,” he said.

Mr. Durett added that, as a former federal employee who worked in historic preservation, he believed the built environment created over the centuries should be as much of a focus as the natural environment.

“The sea will take care of itself,” he said. “A building needs a loving hand, a different touch.”

The evening concluded after more than two hours of lively debate on these issues.

“The comments were great tonight,” said Mr. Terry. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Southold planners are still accepting written comment on the community character chapter at [email protected]. A full draft of the chapter can be read on the town’s website by clicking here.

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