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Cutchogue Woods housing project may be ‘dead in the water’ after Planning Board decision

The Southold Planning Board has advised against the 24-unit affordable housing development dubbed Cutchogue Woods, saying it’s not “fully supported by the Southold Town Comprehensive Plan.”

In an April 12 memorandum addressed to Supervisor Scott Russell, the Town Board and Town Clerk, the Planning Board cites the Cutchogue parcel’s location in the agricultural conservation zoning district, distance from the nearest hamlet center and lack of supporting infrastructure as primary reasons for the disapproval.

“When considering the purpose of the A-C Zoning District, the distance from the Cutchogue Hamlet Center or other commercial areas, the absence of supporting transportation infrastructure, including pedestrian infrastructure, the absence of public transportation and the environmental sensitivity described below, we are of the opinion that the parcel is not located within an appropriate area to permit higher density despite the critical need the Town faces,” the Planning Board wrote.

Developer Rona Smith, a longtime Southold resident with decades of experience in housing, said she doesn’t have much hope for the project’s future.

“We’re dead in the water,” she said. “I don’t think the Town Board would override this.”

The A-C district is meant to reasonably control and, when possible, prevent the unnecessary loss of open lands in Southold, especially parcels with prime agricultural soils and sensitive environmental features such as aquifer recharge areas. The Cutchogue Woods parcel is located over a state Department of Environmental Conservation special groundwater protection district, according to the Planning Board. Open areas also provide the “rural environment so highly valued” by residents. 

The property is more than two miles from the Cutchogue Hamlet Center, while “traditionally a distance of a half-mile is a smart growth benchmark for higher density developments,” according to the Planning Board. 

The location lacks infrastructure for pedestrian access to commercial areas, although biking could be possible, and the nearest bus route is more than 1.85 miles from the site, the Planning Board wrote. There are also currently no traffic controls existing or proposed for the location and turning lanes have not been discussed, creating potentially dangerous situations. A pass-through to the westbound lanes would need to be constructed. The projected vehicle trips from the project clocks in around 160 per day, the memorandum said.

“The long-standing Town position is to site higher density projects within a reasonable distance of the commercial areas that offer important amenities, services and infrastructure which contribute to the quality of life of residents living within these complexes,” the board wrote. “Therefore, we are of the opinion that the proposed project is not in reasonable proximity to Hamlet Centers or other commercial areas.”

The Planning Board says the developers have not provided details about public funding sources, but acknowledged that the applicants are experienced and qualified to build affordable housing projects.  

The Planning Board also acknowledged that the 5.66-acre parcel is large enough to accommodate the proposed sanitary flow, leaving flow credits available for projects on smaller parcels. Utilities and public water services are also in place to support the development.

Ms. Smith, a volunteer on town committees for 20 years, pointed out that locating affordable housing in a HALO zone, also known as a Hamlet Locus zone, is a preference, not a law. She felt she understood the government’s processes. She also consulted with town officials — the Planning Board, the Planning Department, the town supervisor — before purchasing the property, in addition to partnering with the award winning affordable housing developer Georgica Green Ventures.

“I’ve been meeting with the town since August of 2021. I signed the contract because I was given such a positive reaction,” she said. 

A concept for Cutchogue Woods proposed by Rona Smith. The overall design could end up looking very different, she has stressed.

The objections outlined in the Planning Board memo were not mentioned before she closed on the property in January, which she purchased with her own savings, she said. Early meetings with the Town Board focused on income levels and local salaries, water use impact and the need for affordable housing in town, she said. She added that she was asked for a full SEQRA assessment two weeks ago and feels she was owed better communication. 

“I feel shocked and blindsided by the lack of an open, transactional process,” she said. “How can a Southold investor with positive motivations make a rational decision if they’re led in the wrong direction?”

She added that a wealthy buyer could build a very large house on the property. “That means that the gates are closed, and the town decides who can live where. If you’re rich, you can live anywhere. If you’re on the lower rungs, financially, you can only live where the town says you can live,” Ms. Smith said. 

She noted that two parking spots were required for each unit of housing and acknowledged that the property isn’t walkable. But she chose a parcel in a more remote location because if she had built in a neighborhood, people might have been concerned about losing home value. Plus, she can’t cover the costs of development and maintenance with fewer than 24 units, she said.

The project is too early a stage to consult with the Department of Transportation, and she pointed out that affordable housing development Vineyard View was built without a turning lane. 

“I just think the whole thing feels almost like they didn’t want to approve it, so they tried to find a cover for it,” she said. She doesn’t know why that might be the case, and she’s not sure what her next steps are going to be. She said buildings had been consolidated from the original plan to only build on 15% of the site, and she had been looking into solar panels for the project. 

Mr. Russell said the Planning Board memo is planned for discussion at the next town work session, where the Town Board may decide to schedule a public hearing.

“If we don’t go forward with a public hearing, then the project is essentially dead,” he said. “If we did schedule for a public hearing, it wouldn’t mean that the project is approved, it would just mean that the Town Board decided to offer it up to the public to weigh in.” 

Mr. Russell said he can’t speak on behalf of the rest of the board, but he personally does not support the project, noting that he has expressed concerns from the beginning. He said he can’t speak to Ms. Smith’s initial impressions from other town officials.

The project is “so over regulated by federal and state regulations that the applicant would have had no ability to work with the town to reach any targeted goals of our own housing plan,” he said. Not to mention, Southold Town has been buying up land in the area in an effort to “maintain the scenic vista along Route 48.”

“It’s been a heavy focus of the town to buy development rights to the farmland, protect the pristine preserves that are there,” he said. “To support a very high density project, affordable or not, is counterintuitive to these historic efforts.” 

He is not as concerned about the parcel’s location outside of the HALO zone. “While that’s a guide, and that guide should be adhered to as best we can, I think it would be short sighted to say that we can only support affordable housing within the HALOs because sometimes you have to go where the opportunities are,” he said.