Proposal to ease accessory apartment requirements met with mixed reviews

A proposed resolution that would strike a requirement that accessory apartments in private one-family dwellings be located only in primary residences generated mixed reaction at a public hearing Tuesday night.

The amendment would instead require that one of the units be reserved for “exclusive” use by the property owner — even if it is not their primary residence. Requirements for square footage and bathrooms would also be slightly altered under the proposal. Accessory apartments, currently allowed only in one-family dwellings with at least 1,600 square feet of livable space, would be permitted in houses with as little at 1,200 square feet. The accessory apartment itself, according to the proposal, must be at least 350 square feet but no larger than 750 square feet and may have only one bathroom.

Some residents took issue with the latter requirement. 

Southold attorney Pat Moore, speaking on her own behalf, generally expressed support for the updated legislation, but did recommend some changes.

“The insistence on one bathroom, that never made any sense to me,” she said. “I had a client [who] had a handicapped spouse. The reality was that every time his wife would go to the bathroom as a handicapped individual, it takes a while; we want to give that person privacy.”

She argued that when the same client requested a second bathroom from the Zoning Board of Appeals, his request was denied due to town code limitations. She recommended allowing a half-bath, with just a toilet and a sink, in addition to a full bath.

Greg Doroski of Mattituck, the Democratic candidate for supervisor, questioned why the Town Board hadn’t gone to the code committee before drafting the amended legislation, arguing that town civic associations and committees tasked with specific roles such as oversight should continue to be a fundamental part of the process.

Anne Murray of the East Marion Community Association also supported the change but worried about short-term rentals.

“I think you leave loopholes here when you’re taking out ‘as the owner’s principal residence’ … It does leave a loophole for [speculators] to buy multiple homes, make them accessory apartments and rent them on Airbnb. How would you know?”

Supervisor Scott Russell said, “There’s no reason to think that requiring a principal residence would stop … Airbnb. In fact, I can think of several that had been doing that for some time.”

Reading a statement that echoed his op-ed published in the Aug. 22 Suffolk Times, Democratic Town Board candidate Bob Hanlon of Orient said he agreed that Southold needs more housing opportunities, but that the changes proposed in the current resolution are not the answer and may cause more harm than good. 

“One problem is speculation,” he said Tuesday night. “An increasing number of house purchases are by people who are not interested in living here, even part-time. They buy up multiple properties for high-rent, seasonal use, and for short-term rental, even though it is not allowed.”

He, like Mr. Doroski and Ms. Murray, also took issue with the Town Board’s process in proposing the changes. 

“The new code was raised for the first time two weeks ago,” Mr. Hanlon said . “It was never … referred for input from the Zoning Board of Appeals, the housing advisory committee, the economic development committee, or any of the civic or community groups that have a high stake in the shape of our housing.” 

The Housing Advisory Commission, did, however, provide the board with written recommendations Tuesday, generally supporting the amendment.

Mr. Hanlon conceded to Mr. Russell that he was mistaken in writing in his op-ed and voicing during the meeting that the amendment would remove safeguards from the existing code. In at least two instances in the op-ed, this misnomer was mentioned. Mr. Russell re-read that portion of code to Mr. Hanlon, who acknowledged that he had been mistaken and apologized for his oversight.

Mr. Russell responded to many of the comments made at the public hearing, saying there is no evidence speculation will occur. He said it’s unlikely someone would spend upwards of $700,000 for a home now simply because of the change to accessory apartments. He said he agreed with Mr. Hanlon that locals aren’t buying the homes in many instances.

“That’s the problem,” he said. “At least if they want an accessory apartment, even if they don’t live here year-round and they build an accessory apartment, it has to be to a principled primary resident, giving that family at least an option of possibly staying and not moving.”

He also said that the board has been gathering input for years and taking it all into account.

“Every single week we have people that are struggling,” he said. “How much more input do I need after getting that input day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year? I sat in at almost every single meeting of the housing chapter, so I’m familiar with the challenges. I’ve worked with the groups that try to create affordable housing and other types of housing … We have been getting input all of the time. I have been wrestling with this all of the time, but we need the housing.”

The affordable housing crisis, Mr. Russell said, is now. 

“Not six months from now, not one year from now. Now.”

The public hearing was held open for two weeks for written comment.

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Photo caption: Residents hashed out the pros and cons of the proposal at last Tuesday’s public hearing. (Mahreen Khan photo)