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Local civics sound alarm on ‘huge’ houses, ask town to reduce what’s allowed

Southold Town’s civic associations held a virtual meeting with Town Board members Tuesday night to express concern about the construction of large homes on small lots, which is currently allowed under town code.

Gathered on Zoom were members of civic groups from the Orient Association in the east to Mattituck-Laurel in the west, with each speaker sounding the alarm that large homes already built or under construction will permanently damage the “small-town feel” of the North Fork and destroy the character of neighborhoods.

Drianne Benner of the Orient Association said that “reasonable limits” must be addressed in amendments to the town code that would bar the construction of oversized houses, which can currently be as large as 40,000 square feet. 

She and other speakers asked the board to adopt new zoning regulations by September of this year.

“We must change the zoning code to limit house size before it’s too late,” Ms. Benner said, adding that “huge” homes “will change Southold Town forever.” 

Speaker after speaker echoed the same sentiments and said time was of the essence. 

In February, members of the Orient Association, East Marion Community Association, Cutchogue Civic Association, New Suffolk Civic Association and Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association made similar appeals at a Town Board work session. The Tuesday night Zoom presentation before the board was touted as an informal meeting. 

Using slides, the civic groups showed that homes of more than 110,000 square feet have been built on the South Fork, where towns have now limited home size -— but only after huge mansions had already been built on prime farmland. The slides showed that Southold and Riverhead are the exceptions to strict size restrictions on the East End.

According to the slides, buildings of up to 40,000 square feet on two acres are allowable in Southold. On a half-acre lot, a building of up to 10,000 square feet is permitted. Houses of this size, the speakers said, dominate neighborhoods, block light to nearby homes and “visually overwhelm” other properties.

“We all live in a beautiful place that is changing quickly,” said George Cork Maul, director of the New Suffolk Civic Association, adding that the rural beauty in his hamlet is “under assault.”

He added: “This is the last chance we have to deal with this. We have to do something now before it’s too late.”

Participating in the Zoom session were Supervisor Scott Russell and board members Louisa Evans, Bob Ghosio, Jill Dougherty and Sarah Nappa. Each of them praised the groups for their work on the issue. 

“The time to act is now,” said Anne Murray, director of the East Marion Community Association.

Ms. Benner urged the board to consider strict limits on building height as well as square footage in relation to lot size, suggesting a maximum of 12,000 square feet with a cap of 35 feet in height for a sloped roof and 25 feet for a flat roof.

Several speakers from the civic groups, and others who joined in the Zoom meeting, noted that such restrictions would have no impact on property values and, in fact, would enhance values. Eric Dantes, a builder and a member of the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, said the groups’ presentation was “dead on,” adding that size restrictions would not hurt builders or the real estate industry.

Similar comments came from Bob DeLuca of Group for the East End, who added that passing restrictions now would “spare the town from nasty struggles from a land-use perspective down the road.”

Southold architect Meryl Kramer said she fully supports size restrictions and counsels her clients that “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” build a huge house. She said new building codes would “prevent people from insisting on larger structures.”

Near the end of the meeting, Mr. Russell said the board could not make any decisions then, adding that he anticipated this issue will come up at the next available work session.