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Year-round housing critical for Fishers Island Utility Co.

The Fishers Island Utility Co. is stressing a need for year-round housing for its workers, which it says is critical to its services and the safety of an island reachable only by water or air.

At last Tuesday’s Southold Town Board work session, utility company president Chris Finan and board of directors member Tom Siebens proposed changing the single-family residential zoning at properties it owns to Hamlet Density zoning. This would allow four units to be built per acre.

While the town continues to grapple with how to address a lack of affordable housing, Fishers Island, which is 11 miles from the mainland, demonstrates an urgent need that comes down to what Mr. Finan called “a life safety issue.”

“We need the people that have the ability to isolate dangerous situations and address them as quickly as possible,” Mr. Finan said Tuesday. If the island, which is about nine miles long and a mile wide, were hit with conditions similar to what Florida experienced during Hurricane Irma, having no utility workers there “could be a very serious issue,” he said.

The company wants to provide housing for about 15 of its 20 employees. In the past, it has provided “on-call” housing for workers, but that has not offered the best quality of life in a “constrained environment,” Mr. Finan said.

“Ideally, we want to have people who live here year round become involved in the EMT and fire department in addition to being part of the utility company,” he said. “Over the years, through attrition and that kind of thing, we can’t expect when somebody leaves that somebody else has an ability to purchase the houses because they’re just way out of most people’s means.”

Initially, the utility company will try to achieve the zoning change on a vacant 1.78-acre parcel and “learn as we go” as its works with the town moving forward on other properties it owns.

“Affordable housing in general is very critical out here, whether it’s for utility company employees or for other people,” said Town Board member and Fishers Island resident Louisa Evans.

The Fishers Island School also has some housing for employees, but not enough, she noted. Many of the teachers who live on the island also provide fire and EMT services and Ms. Evans hopes employees of the utility company could do the same.

The town code committee will review a proposal to create affordable housing options through zoning exemptions.

Supervisor Scott Russell said the challenge of being able to retain young workers is one all businesses within the town are dealing with.

He called the utility company’s proposal “innovative” and said that while he likes the idea, he wants to know more.

“This is an issue that’s proven difficult to come up with solutions, so any ideas really need to be put on the table and thoroughly considered,” Mr. Russell said.

Southold Town recently released a video with the goal of addressing misconceptions about affordable housing and the townwide need for it. The town is currently drafting a code change to allow apartments as principal uses in commercial zones, the supervisor noted.

The utility company’s proposal would go first to the Planning Board for recommendations and input, then to the Town Board to set up code committee meetings to devise a draft that could go out for public hearing, Mr. Russell said.

Photo caption: A view of Fishers Island. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

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