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Southold will alter proposed code amendment to promote affordable housing

Southold Town officials will alter a proposed code amendment that could promote more affordable housing, after feedback from the Planning Board and a public hearing.

The amendment as written would allow property owners in Hamlet Business and Hamlet Locus, or HALO, zones to expand existing buildings to accommodate up to six affordable apartments. Town code already allows property owners in certain zones to convert existing buildings into affordable apartments. The maximum number of apartments allowed would not change. 

The Planning Board expressed concern about how the proposed amendment would impact residential zones in HALO centers, Town Board members said at a work session last Tuesday. 

“I think that the Planning Board just raised some issues with the HALO zones and making it a permitted use versus special exception,” Town Board member Sarah Nappa said. “I think that was the issue that they were concerned about. They were OK with the hamlet centers, just making it by right, but they were concerned about the R-80, R-40 and RO zones in the HALO.”

The Planning Board agreed with the code amendments but were concerned that a buildout of up to six apartments in residential areas could change community character, Ms. Nappa said. The board suggested considering special exception use in those zones, she added.

“It sounds like they want a review for the [Zoning Board of Appeals] for the character of the neighborhood, because in some neighborhoods, yes, it would be great and in other neighborhoods it could really change that neighborhood, so they wanted to keep the special exception on all applications for it,” Town Board member Louisa Evans said.

Under the current proposal, conversions without expanding existing space would only need site plan approval from the town Planning Board. They would no longer need special exception review and approval from the ZBAs. Expansions would need special exception approval from the ZBA.

“I could definitely see the argument both ways,” Ms. Nappa said. “I think we should be encouraging this and if we’re not changing the structure of the building, how much influence is it going to have on the character of the community? But I understand their caution, of just going forward, not allowing it by right.”

Supervisor Scott Russell said requiring both site plan and ZBA approval would be redundant. 

“I would rather go special exception and let them put the conditions in place that they see fit based on their experience, and I don’t know why you need a site plan for residential use,” he said. “Either way, there’d be some measure of protection of the surrounding area because it’s going to get reviewed by the Town Board.”

Town Board member James Dinizio said the HALO zones were created to concentrate density. 

“You’re not changing the character of that community, you’re doing exactly what the plan says to do, which is to put the density in the HALO zones,” he said. “We want to make this as simple as you possibly can … Just my opinion, it’s a HALO zone, there’s a reason why we established HALO zones, and the reason is this, right here, increase that density and utilize buildings that already exist.”

Ms. Nappa pointed out that the Planning Board only requested more stringent approval in residential areas and it looks as though the biggest impact would be in Mattituck.

“I think one of the reasons the Planning Board is suggesting that, in the HALO, the special exception as well as site plan is because the Planning Board doesn’t look at the character of the community where special exception, [the ZBA] could consider,” town attorney Bill Duffy said. 

Town Board members considered eliminating site plans in HALO for R-40 and R-80 and requiring special exception approval instead. 

Patricia Moore, a local attorney, said at a public hearing later that day that although she’s generally in favor of the amendment, “building out a building” to allow for apartments seems like it could be a lengthy and expensive process.

“While I know you’re trying to focus on existing buildings, I think you should leave the possibility of building a new building for the purposes of apartments,” she said, pointing out that an existing building may need to be basically remodeled in order to function as an apartment. 

Southold resident Tom McCarthy said he’d like to “echo” and “reiterate” Ms. Moore’s comments. 

“I think that the code evolves over the course of time and doesn’t necessarily see a clear path as things are amended as we go, so if we had — to her point — the ability to have as a permitted use these apartments from the get-go instead of a conversion or expansion, I think that would be a streamlined process,” he said.

Mr. McCarthy said he’s “presently in the throes of the accessory apartment in an accessory building snafu right now,” emphasizing that the process is both costly and “circuitous.”

Mr. Russell said part of the intent of the proposed code was to “remove a lot of special exception requirements in most of the zones” and pointed out that if there’s a ground-up interest, someone could apply for an AHD zone.

Mr. McCarthy responded that applying for a zone change is “just another step along the way.”

“You may look to convert a part of a building, if you’re in the Hamlet Business Zone for instance, you may have additional density on your buildout and you might say, you know, I have a retail store and I have enough land area where perhaps I can build a brand-new building with two affordable apartments in it, but this particular legislation as it’s presently, initially drafted, doesn’t give us the opportunity to do that without some difficulties,” he said.

Mr. Russell said part of the goal was to utilize existing, vacant commercial inventory.

“You have to remember that this law only requires that they maintain affordable apartments for eight years. There’s a misunderstanding, because the public thinks ‘hey, you can have the apartments, keep them affordable for eight years and then you’re out of the obligation,’ ” he said. “I don’t think the public understands that in order to do that, you lose the right to the apartments, so that’s the quid pro quo. After eight years, if you want to keep them, you can still keep them, but they have to be affordable for as long as you keep them.”

Mr. McCarthy said he understands and he’d “encourage the board to look at perhaps another tool in the toolbox.” 

“You could quite conceivably have a retail store that’s at the street front and have some available land behind it and have a half-acre, three quarters of an acre, and this legislation, although well-meaning, doesn’t allow that applicant to go and put in a detached structure away from the existing commercial structure to put up a two-unit apartment that’s affordable, or something like that,” he said. “If we were to think about it in that regard, it may be just a little bit more accomplishable and we may get some more units on the ground.”

Mr. Russell said the Town Board would “bring that into the discussion.” He added that the town will likely hold another public hearing on the updated proposal.