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Some Fishers Island residents are pushing back on plan to bring affordable housing to community

One clearly stated goal of Southold’s soon-to-be-adopted comprehensive plan is to address affordable housing townwide — including Fishers Island, where the median home price is reported to be $1.47 million, according to the real estate company Zillow.

Some residents, however, are already pushing back against a plan that would see affordable housing built in the Ft. Wright neighborhood of the four-square-mile island.

The Walsh Park Benevolent Corporation, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to provide housing for a year-round community on the island, has proposed six affordable housing units for property located at the corner of Winthrop and Equestrian avenues. 

“To a large extent, [well-intentioned] people are either for it or against it.”

Pierce Rafferty

“Those working on Fishers Island cannot go one town over for more affordable housing. They must go across the Fishers Island Sound,” Walsh Park officials wrote in an Aug. 20 letter to the Town Board. Year round residents, the group says, provide essential services as volunteer firefighters, EMTs, crossing guards and other roles. 

In order to move the project forward, Walsh Park is seeking a change of zone for the property from Residential 40 to Hamlet Density.

Proponents of the project, like Harry and Susie Ferguson, cite a dwindling year-round population as evidence of the need. “Growing up there were perhaps 600 year-round residents, including all of the school teachers, everyone who worked for the Fishers Island Utility Company and most of those employed on the Island,” the couple wrote in a March 2020 letter to the Town Board. 

Current estimates put the year-round population at around 230, a number that may rise due to the current pandemic. “Every additional family will benefit the island,” theFergusons said.

“It’s a hot button issue on the island right now,” said town Planning Board member Pierce Rafferty, a Fishers Island resident,  who pointed out that the issue dates back more than 30 years. “To a large extent, people are either for it or against it,” he said, adding that there are “well-intentioned” people on both sides of the issue.

A group of 20 neighbors spelled out their concerns about density, traffic and safety in an Aug. 21 letter to the Town Board.

In that letter, they wrote that the property is located in “one of the most crowded and populous areas” on the island and constructing six units would be “creating a neighborhood within a neighborhood that would dramatically alter the character,” of the area.

The neighbors also contend that the project is situated near one of the island’s most dangerous intersections.

“There may indeed be a need for more affordable housing on Fishers Island, but there is no reason to think there is such urgency at this particular time that [Walsh Park] and the Town need to look at this site as if it were the last and only opportunity for the development of more housing on the Island,” the letter continues, as the group urged Walsh Park to consider properties on the east end of the island, too.

The application gained the support of the Planning Board earlier this month, which identified affordable housing as a “critical” need on Fishers Island and throughout Southold Town.

“I think it’s a good project,” Planning Board chair Don Wilcenski said at a Aug. 10 work session. “We need to increase some living capacity for people who need it.”

Mr. Rafferty also spoke in favor of the change of zone during thatdiscussion, citing the need for workforce housing. He said concerns raised by community members can be addressed down the road during the planning process.

Town Board member Louisa Evans recused herself from discussions of setting a public hearing on the change of zone at last Tuesday’s meetings.

“The Walsh Park board has made clear they don’t think I’m able to be unbiased because my husband has opinions — which might not necessarily be my opinions,” she said. 

Earlier this month, Bob Evans penned a letter to the Town Board highlighting additional economic concerns, arguing that the project is “inappropriate” under current circumstances.

Mr. Evans said a large number of NYC residents have taken refuge on the island and may stay on a more permanent basis. “It is likely that the local population will experience an unanticipated boost without the need for additional housing,” he wrote.

He also said the island is confronting “serious” economic impacts of its own, including a decline in ferry district and local club revenue and limited sewer district capacity. “Walsh Park’s plans must be viewed in the light of these developments,” Mr. Evans wrote.

Last year, the Walsh Park organization signed a non-binding letter of intent to purchase the 3.82-acre property from the Fishers Island School District. If a zoning change is approved, the school district will hold a referendum of eligible Fishers Island voters to sell the property.  

Supervisor Scott Russell supported setting the hearing, which will give residents a formal avenue to weigh in. Ultimately, he said, voters in the school district will decide the project’s viability. “They can defeat the sale through referendum,” he said last Tuesday. “You vote down the sale, you vote down the project.”

The public hearing is set for Tuesday, Oct. 6, at 4:30 p.m.