Equal Time: McMansions should not be our future

05/26/2019 5:58 AM |

We are not the Hamptons. Some call us the “Un-Hamptons.” We like it like that. This is not “The Scene.” It is still farm country. And small businesses. And modest homes. We like it like that.

But the North Fork is changing. We now have wineries. And they have helped save many a farm and brought jobs, tax revenue and opportunities to our community. But they, too, are in keeping with the quiet style of the North Fork – dozens of acres, not thousands. Small tasting rooms and wine clubs, not container-loads of cases. Many vineyards are set among our modest homes and peacefully coexist. There are more recreational boaters than working fishermen. But we are regrowing our shellfish industry. We like that.

Some of our families have been here for hundreds of years. Some have come back to the streets of their summer childhoods. And some of us have found this special place and chosen to set down our roots here, hopefully for generations to come.

We are full-time residents and part-time. It has always been so. And we like that too. Many of our seasonal visitors come year after year, and even become friends. But lately, we have seen a trend toward fewer full-timers overall, leaving us with shrinking school populations, more seasonal stores and restaurants and even quieter winter days.

Our neighborhoods vary from Laurel to Fishers Island — and even within a hamlet. Each has its own style and character that deserves respect. Prices are climbing, but there are still many streets with modest three- and four-bedroom homes. Our building boom of the late 20th century has tapered off, but we are now seeing an upsurge in house-by-house development and overdevelopment. A modest, 2,000-square-foot ranch is torn down, and from its ruins arises a 4,000-square-foot replacement. One beach cottage in the row disappears and a 6,000-square-foot house with a pool house crops up. Many of these properties are now being bought up by speculators who see an opportunity not to live here, but to scoop up cash from skyrocketing seasonal rentals, or even short-term rentals, despite recent rules against them. As houses grow, so do the number of cars and the strains on our fresh water and wastewater systems.

Growth and change are inevitable, but when the change is unplanned and unmanaged, we run the risk of losing what is special in this town. Our rules about zoning and building are many decades old, and do not address the trends that now threaten our quality of life. The McMansions are coming — and in some neighborhoods are already here.

Right now, under our current rules, you can build a 32,000-square-foot house on a two-acre parcel in Southold, no special permission needed. That is more than half the size of the White House. (Anything over 20,000 square feet is considered a “mega-mansion.”) On a one-acre lot, you can put a 16,000-square-foot house. On a quarter-acre, a 5,000-square-foot house is allowed. Even that’s a big house. The average home in the U.S. and on Long Island is about 2,700 square feet.

Some of us may want to add a bedroom or two, a family room or a bigger kitchen to a house we have enjoyed or inherited. Or the seasonal bungalow may need to be replaced to make it a year-round home. These changes don’t necessarily upend a community. But when new houses are being built, or older ones rebuilt, that are dramatically larger than all of those around them, when a historic cottage is razed to construct a chateau, it can start a pattern of overdevelopment that can quickly wipe out the character of the neighborhoods we came or stayed here for.

Every town on the East End, except Southold and Riverhead, has changed its laws to limit this trend toward overbuilding. Yes, even East Hampton and Southampton. They impose limitations on the maximum size a new or expanded house can be, based on lot size. Some of them have also implemented a “pyramid law,” which prevents construction that overshadows a neighbor by being too close and too high. It is time that Southold changes its building code to prevent the overdevelopment that threatens to destroy our neighborhoods.

Two years ago, the Orient community endorsed a proposal to require that new houses and major reconstructions be in scale with the other homes in the neighborhood. When this was presented to the town government, the response was: “We don’t think it’s a problem yet.” The Hamptons waited to pass their laws until after the trend had wiped out the smaller, more modest communities that used to exist there. We cannot bide our time until the problem is so glaring, so advanced, that some of our neighborhoods have been changed beyond recognition.

Overbuilding to attract the ultra-rich or to maximize rental profits threatens to destroy the things that make this town special — the things that, for now, keep us here. The dramatic escalation of housing prices (and other prices) that follows this trend will make it even less likely that our children can afford to stay here. Do we need to become another South Fork before we wake up and put the brakes on this unregulated, unplanned, unhealthy growth? The North Hamptons? We DON’T like it like that.

Mr. Hanlon is a Democratic Party candidate for Southold Town Board.

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