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Civic groups ask Town Board to take action on large houses

A seasonal bungalow razed to make way for a year-round home. A historic cottage leveled and replaced with something much larger.

Sound familiar?

It does to virtually every civic group within Southold Town — and they are pressuring the Town Board to take action on house size.

Members of the Orient Association, East Marion Community Association, Cutchogue Civic Association, New Suffolk Civic Association and Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association, appealed to the board during a work session Tuesday, arguing that while each hamlet organization must contend with its own unique issues, house size transcends geographical boundaries.

“We believe that house size limitation is one of the issues among many that brings together many aspects of preserving community character,” said Orient Association president Drianne Benner. “As houses grow incrementally larger, with no constraint or little constant, the nature of that community character that we love is beginning to change.” 

In their presentation Tuesday, the civic groups asked town representatives to begin developing zoning code changes to limit house size and preserve community character.

“The South Fork has a lot of the same problems that we have,” said George Cork Maul, director of the New Suffolk Civic Association, urging the board to study restrictions that have been adopted in those villages and towns. “It’d be nice to not reinvent the wheel.”

According to Anne Murray, who chairs the East Marion Community Association, community character and house size are top issues residents are concerned about, in addition to water quality, traffic and affordability.

Ms. Murray said other East End towns have set maximum limits on allowable living area, including Shelter Island, which allows up to 6,000 square feet of living area or 25% lot coverage, whichever is less.

In Southold, Ms. Murray said, a 1.5-acre lot could allow for a 25,000-square-foot home. “That makes Southold allowing the construction of the largest homes on the East End,” followed by Riverhead, she said.

Terms like “McMansion” have been used to describe suburban homes of 3,000 to 5,000 square feet, while homes over 20,000 square feet are sometimes called “megamansions.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median size of a new single-family home sold in 2019 was 2,322 square feet.

Though not present during Tuesday’s meeting, the Greenport Civic Association and a newly forming community group in Southold supported the proposal.

In addition to setting maximum gross floor area limits, the civic associations asked for any code change to allow for flexibility in establishing regulations for non-conforming sizes and guidelines for variance up to 125% of existing neighborhood development to allow modifications within the scope of existing community character, with a proposed timeline for adoption by late summer.

But some Town Board members argued that house size is already governed by lot coverage, setback and building height requirements, as well as zoning regulations.

“It’s a heavy lift,” said Supervisor Scott Russell, since many homes within Southold are preexisting non-conforming and built to a different set of standards. Overhauling the code could have unintended impacts on those property owners.

In some neighborhoods, the supervisor said, large houses are already the standard.

“If you’re talking about community character, then you need a code that’s actually going to reflect community character,” he said.

The supervisor also said Southold does have a maximum house size, but the problem is it’s just too big. “It allows for too much,” he said, adding that the first question to answer is: “How big is too big?”

Civic leaders said they were ready and willing to help facilitate community discussions and work with the Town Board to come up with reasonable limits, which Mr. Russell said must not have a substantial impact on existing homeowners.

Councilwoman Sarah Nappa, who has suggested tackling the issue in the past, disagreed with the supervisor. “There are some easy fixes that we could come up with. The fact that we have no maximum is a big problem that needs to be addressed right away.”

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