Cut­ch­ogue Woods zone change will go to public hearing as town seeks input from community

The Southold Town Board plans to hold a public hearing on a zone change for the Cut­ch­ogue Woods affordable housing proposal before making a decision.

Town Board members expressed a desire to hear public input on the project, which has been controversial among some community members. The decision, which still needs to be affirmed via resolution, follows a memo from the town Planning Board advising against the zone change. 

“As somebody who is elected, I always want to hear what the public response has been and it’s something that affects the public so I think it’s appropriate to have public comment,” said Town Board member Brian Mealy.

Southold resident Rona Smith — who has been involved in local government and housing for more than 20 years — purchased land for the project and teamed up with affordable housing developer Georgica Green Ventures to build 24 townhouse-style apartments on the parcel on Route 48 in Cut­ch­ogue. GGV has developed several affordable housing complexes on Long Island, including in Riverhead and Southampton.

The town Planning Board advised against the development in an April 12 memorandum, saying it’s not “fully supported by the Southold Town Comprehensive Plan.” The board cites the 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.

Town Board member Jill Doherty, who is a liaison to the town Housing Advisory Commission, said the HAC still supports the application and they might write another letter to the Town Board about the project.

“We have gotten some letters from the public but I think it’s gotten this far and there’s so much talk about it, it’s only right to have a public hearing at this point and then we can make a decision on whether we want to change the zone or not,” she said.

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

Town Board member Sarah Nappa said she has some “general concerns about process” with the way the application has played out but she would support a public hearing. 

Town Board member Greg Doroski said he shared Ms. Nappa’s concerns about “process” but also feels the project should go to public hearing.

Supervisor Scott Russell, pointing to local opposition and the Planning Board’s memo, said he does not think the zone change should go up for public hearing but acknowledged that board members “raised good points” and said he’d support their decision.

He said he was more concerned about review than process. Ms. Smith “pretty much did everything that you would expect an applicant to do,” he said. But, “there’s so much opposition to this, I don’t know that it should go to public hearing … Like it or not, the Planning Board has taken a position on this based on the comp plan.”

“Unless this board thinks, ‘Yeah, there’s a chance I’ll vote for this,’ I don’t want to give the public the opportunity to speak and waste their time unless they feel like they’re really being heard and they’re going to move the minds of this board,” he added. 

Mr. Mealy responded that he views the hearing as a “community education effort,” and said he’d lean “towards the public feeling validated that they had an opportunity to say something, even if it’s against it — that they had a chance to say what their two cents are.” 

Town Board member Louisa Evans said she doesn’t have anything against the project itself, but it’s “the location and the comp plan.” She said she’s concerned about what precedents the zone change could set for the future. 

“While the [comprehensive plan] is important, it’s not a constitution,” Ms. Nappa said. Mr. Russell added that the comprehensive plan is “only a guide.”

Mr. Mealy pointed out that this is an opportunity for the board to clarify its “vision” for affordable housing. “For me, as a new board member, and as someone who’s followed this issue, public comment can clarify that for me,” he said. 

“It’s unfortunate the way the process has played out. We’ve spent so much time on it, it’s only fair to finish the process,” Ms. Doherty said. “Normally, we don’t spend this much time. We decide yes or no before we have the applicant spend all this money and all this time.” 

Ms. Smith said she’s “very pleased” with the opportunity for a public hearing. In a letter responding to the Planning Board’s memo, she and GGV president David Gallo pointed to the company’s award-winning “history of delivering sustainable, quality, long term affordable housing throughout New York State and especially to communities on the east end of Long Island.”

The letter, dated April 25, acknowledges the preference to build affordable housing near hamlet centers but points out that Southold is a rural town with “housing generally at a distance from hamlets.”

“Of the ten hamlets and one village in Southold, three offer no services beyond a post office. In the Town, parking is mandated for both residential and commercial buildings. Affordable housing developments require two parking spaces for each residence,” the letter says. “There is an inherent assumption that all Southold residents need cars to access services and jobs. Vehicle dependency is a fact of life for all residents in Southold.”

The pair invite the Town Board and Planning Board to visit the affordable housing developments Sandy Hollow Dove in Southampton and Three Mile Harbor in East Hampton, which are around three miles and five miles from hamlets respectively.

The Cut­ch­ogue Woods development will retain most trees on site and implement other strategies, such as rain gardens, to promote sustainability, they note. The letter poses the possibility of the parcel selling to developers with plans to build two or three large homes instead of affordable housing. 

“Experience shows that new residential construction tends toward big and is usually accompanied by handsomely landscaped surroundings. Typically, this involves extensive irrigation, use of fertilizers, and a swimming pool,” Ms. Smith and Mr. Gallo wrote. “Which will have a more lasting positive impact; 24 homes for local workers or more mega mansions?”