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Town Board votes to shrink Housing Advisory Commission from 10 to 7 members

A resolution amending Chapter 34 of the town code, in which the town sought to shrink the Housing Advisory Commission from 10 members to 7, was adopted last Tuesday, July 2, despite concerns voiced by an Orient resident.

Bob Hanlon, a Democratic Party candidate for Southold Town Board, asked at a public hearing held before the vote why the board was proposing the smaller number, saying the town needed more informed input, not less. Board members ultimately decided, in a unanimous vote, to adopt the resolution because they felt Mr. Hanlon’s concerns had been aptly addressed.

“The Housing Advisory Commission plays a vital role in assisting the town with a very complex issue of our critical housing needs,” Mr. Hanlon said. “Despite the recent approval of the Vineyard View project, overall, the housing situation is getting worse, not better.”

He cited the commission’s responsibilities to reflect a diverse membership with individuals from various communities.

“With the commitment to diversity in the code,” Mr. Hanlon said, “it’s hard to fathom how we can cover all of those bases, even with 10 …  The town is about to receive an influx of payments into the [Town of] Southold Housing Fund, raising the overall available funds to about $1 million. We’re also likely to have the ability to obtain additional funds through the state’s recently passed housing fund that could permit aid to housing for middle-income families … I cannot help but notice a movement of the town away from letting the committees and commissions carry out the roles that they were authorized to play.”

Supervisor Scott Russell responded, saying that 10 is an unworkable number of members and that it’s been a challenge to get the quorum of six in attendance at commission meetings. According to minutes posted on the town website, only three HAC meetings were held during 2018 and only two so far this year  — one on Jan. 10 and the other on March 21.

Town Board member Jim Dinizio Jr., who serves as liaison to the commission, said in a phone interview Tuesday that it’s always been a problem trying to get minutes taken at meetings. While he could not recall an exact number of times the commission met, he said it met most months, regardless of whether enough members came to form a quorum.

“I can’t recall not at least getting together [every month],” he said.

However, town government liaison officer Denis Noncarrow said in a phone interview Monday that HAC meetings are held every other month. He added that when a quorum was not reached, the commission was unable to adequately operate. Though they could have discussions, they could not vote.

“There were a couple of people that had some personal things in their lives, so, intermittently, they weren’t there” Mr. Noncarrow said. But, he said, the commission worked to ensure that everyone stayed engaged by moving meeting places and coordinating with members’ schedules. “It’s been tough to get folks there. Everybody’s so busy. A lot of the communications we ended up doing over the phone.”

Mr. Russell said the Town Board advertises each year for people to volunteer for a variety of committees, but doesn’t get the best response. “We have difficulty filling seats; we have difficulty when we do fill the seats, with people with busy lives being able to show up to meetings on at least a regular basis.”

The supervisor agreed that the current commission is not as geographically diverse as it should be. He said he was open to suggestions.

For his part, Mr. Hanlon said that running an ad in the local paper is not enough, arguing that the town is “not looking far enough down the field” and needs to make a more concerted effort to involve community groups and associations, thereby putting themselves in a better position to have people take part in different facets of local government.

After the vote, Mr. Dinizio said the commission used to be more diverse, but that now one of the members doesn’t even live in the town. He said having 10 members — or even seven — is unwieldy and does not help get anything done, but, in the interest of compromise and to advance the commission’s functionality, he said he would vote “yes” on the reduction of three members.

With seven members on the commission, the new quorum for doing business will be four, which Mr. Dinizio and Mr. Noncarrow both say is much more workable and will pave way for more targeted discussion.

Board member Jill Doherty agreed that in order for the commission to get anything accomplished, they need a quorum.

Mr. Russell, who said he wanted to put Mr. Dinizio’s comment in context, said, “One of the challenges Southold has is that it does not have the infrastructure in many instances to support higher-density apartments, which the town decided was the goal to go with … The problem is we have a lot of developers that walk in, they propose ideas, they do the math, they walk out and we never hear from them again.”

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