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After lengthy meeting, hearing on Cutchogue Woods to be continued July 5

Last week’s hearing on changing the zone for the proposed Cutchogue Woods affordable housing development will reconvene at the next regular Town Board meeting, to accommodate an influx of residents and stakeholders offering input. 

The Tuesday hearing didn’t start until nearly two hours in, after the Town Board voted on its usual agenda and wrapped up another public hearing on limiting house size. The room was packed for both hearings, with around 80 people present at the start of each. 

“I have a lot of questions; it’s just so late in the evening,” Supervisor Scott Russell said after nearly three hours of commentary. The Town Board agreed to accept written comments and continue the in-person hearing at a July 5 meeting.

Southold resident Rona Smith, who has been involved in local government and housing for more than 20 years, has been leading the charge on Cutchogue Woods, which proposes 24 townhouse-style apartments on a 5.66-acre parcel along Route 48. She purchased the land specifically for the project and partnered with affordable housing developer Georgica Green Ventures, which has developed several affordable housing complexes on Long Island, including in Riverhead and Southampton.

Ms. Smith held two workshops on the project at Cutchogue New Suffolk Library last Friday, and kicked off the hearing with a video outlining the need for affordable housing in Southold and a presentation from consultants refuting points made in an April 12 Planning Board memo advising against the development. In order to move forward with the project, the Town Board must approve a zone change for the parcel from Agricultural Conservation to Affordable Housing District. 

Company president David Gallo emphasized that Georgica Green Ventures prioritizes sustainability and high living standards, and that most units in its developments go to locals. With 24 units, Cutchogue Woods is the “smallest density per acre project” the group has worked on, he said.

“If you want workforce housing, you can’t build it on Park Avenue. Hamlets are really expensive to buy land. There are constraints,” he said. “To say it has to belong in a hamlet, which, by the way, is great, right? But these other projects haven’t. And it’s not because Rona and I don’t want to do it, it’s because the funding sources and the process with the state will inhibit it.”

Forty percent of the back portion of the property will remain open space, Mr. Gallo added. He suggested using covenants and restrictions to maintain open space in perpetuity. 

Consultants presenting after Mr. Gallo emphasized that the town’s comprehensive plan considers affordable housing a crisis, and noted that there are currently zero acres of AHD zoning in Cutchogue. Ms. Smith’s property is vacant and has not historically been used for agriculture, nor is it eligible for preservation as part of the town’s Community Preservation Fund, consultants said.

“At a recent meeting of the Suffolk County Planning Commission, a representative of the town specifically stated when asked that it is not the intent of the town to limit affordable housing to only the hamlet centers and only the HALO zones,” a consultant said. “The proposed project is compatible with the pattern of development in the surrounding area, which does consist of a mix of uses.”

The proposed project would meet the latest monitoring requirements and use an innovative alternative sanitary system, consultants said. Potable water would be supplied to the site by the Suffolk County Water Authority, meaning there would be no pumping or use of groundwater at the site itself.

The Planning Board’s memo had argued against the development because of the parcel’s location in the Agricultural Conservation zoning district and its distance from the nearest hamlet center. It also cited environmental and groundwater sensitivity on the site.

Community members expressed mixed opinions at the hearing, ranging from concern about the environment to locals and other stakeholders expounding on the housing crisis. A few speakers tuned in from out of town via Zoom, including an affordable housing resident from another Georgica Green development on the East End, a neighbor of a different development by that group and affordable housing advocates. 

Michael Daly is founder of East End YIMBY, an affordable housing advocacy group. He highlighted the housing crisis on the East End, emphasizing that “safe and affordable housing is vital to a community’s stability and growth.”

“You’ll always find people who are in opposition to these types of things,” Mr. Daly said. “The statement is always, ‘This is not the right place for it. We believe in affordable housing, God knows everybody needs affordable housing. Just don’t put it here.’ I haven’t heard one person recommend any other place that it could go tonight.” 

Jaine Mehring of Amagansett, who lives near a Georgica Green affordable development, said her community was initially “incredibly cautious” about the project. 

“We had concerns, to say the least,” she said. “But it did go through the approval process. It was built and it has become a great, essential and integrated part of our community.”

Without affordable housing projects, “people who live and work in the community will not be able to remain in town,” Ms. Mehring added. “Your community will be decimated. I’m speaking from your future.” 

Local business owner Paul Romanelli commended the developers for the project and argued that zoning is a tool for planning, but “nothing ever fits all nice and neat in a nice package.”

“The comments about affordable housing being within the hamlet area close to town and village, close to transportation, were recommendations, not demanded. There is no way that some of that high-priced Main Road property is going to be used for affordable housing in most districts,” he said. “It was never the intent that that was the only place that affordable housing could go. So let’s be clear about that.”

Fred Andrews of Jamesport, a former Southold resident, said in response to arguments that the development should be near public transportation that a car is necessary to live in Southold. 

“People who live in affordable housing are like the rest of us. They drive to work and to school, they drive to the supermarket, they drive to the bank, they drive to church, they drive to go fishing and when they pass on they’ll be driven to the cemetery,” he said. “With due respect to Suffolk County Transit, no one could live a normal everyday life in Southold if they had only the S92 bus.”

Gail Wickham, a local attorney, said the hearing is not about affordable housing or the ability of the developers to put the project together. The proposed project does not neighbor other residential developments and, in fact, lands in “one of the most dense, concentrated farmland areas in the town.” 

“I have to reluctantly oppose this project due to the density of any housing project going in this location and that is one thing that the applicants have totally glossed over in their presentation and their expert testimony,” she said. “Farming is not necessarily compatible with residential growth and residential uses.”

She said people already walk through the farmland her family owns immediately west of the parcel, sometimes ruining crops. She added that groundwater in the area is fragile as well and the property is along a scenic byway where traffic could be an issue.

“The other problem is, you have dangerous situations. You have dust, you have spraying, you have all kinds of stuff going on. You have heavy mechanical equipment. A lot of times, if you can’t finish your job, you want to leave your equipment out there. And now they would have to take it all the way home,” Ms. Wickham said. “It’s going to be a burden for housing in that location. And again, I’m not downplaying the need for affordable housing. I’m focusing on the location.”

Russell McCall, a winery owner, highlighted the value of preserving land in town. 

“You have to think ahead of what’s going to be here for hundreds of years, for the Town of Southold to look at, not just say I made a mistake so it’s okay, fine, let’s just rush through this project because this developer is better than the other developers,” he said. “Let me tell you, they’re all in business to make money.”

Amanda Akran, who graduated from Southold High School and moved back after completing her master’s degree, said she’s “looking to settle down, maybe build a family of [her] own.”

She works at a Greenport restaurant and as an art director at a local summer camp. She said the town needs to do something about the housing crisis. 

“As a 27-year-old who would like to come home, I can’t. I currently am living in a restored and renovated 1967 Airstream,” Ms. Akran said. “I’d like to be a person who teaches your children, with my master’s, with my education … I’d like to be someone who gives back. But I can’t do that when I can’t be warm in the winter.”

Connie Lassandro, a Baiting Hollow resident whose only daughter and son-in-law lived in Southold for 22 years, said they are now moving to South Carolina after selling their property to a developer. The couple has been living with her for a year, she said, because they can’t find another home in Southold they can afford. 

“Riverhead has taken on affordable housing. We’ve certainly got our fair share. And I think the other towns surrounding us need to also. We all need affordable housing. These are our kids that need to stay near their families. I’m sure if you’ve all got kids, you don’t want them leaving town,” said Ms. Lassandro, who was recently appointed chair of Riverhead’s Housing Advisory Commission. “It’s a horrible feeling, trust me. So I have to make the decision now, do I stay, or do I follow? I’ve lived on Long Island all my life.”

Representatives from the town Housing Advisory Commission, the Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation, and Vision Long Island, as well as Greenport Village Board member Julia Robins and several residents, also spoke in favor of the project. 

Former Town Board candidate and local winery owner Anthony Sannino argued against the development, as did his wife, Lisa, Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) and Town Trustee Nick Krupski. 

Mr. Krupski pointed out that the town does not have to consider a zone change for the project. He acknowledged that housing is a “huge problem” in town but said the town can’t build its way out of the problem. 

“I’m not sure if the whole story has been told. There’s 33 acres of woods across the street from this project that I got a resolution passed through Suffolk County to order appraisals so that Suffolk County could purchase that as open space because there’s so little woodland left on the North Fork,” he said. “This parcel, when the owner and the developer came in, I made the offer. I said, ‘Please, enter the land preservation program.’ And the offer still stands. The offer still stands to this applicant to come into the land preservation program, at least see what your options are.”

Mr. Krupski also read out a letter from legislative aide Gwynn Schroeder of Cutchogue, who said she opposed the project even though her family could benefit from affordable housing, because “the siting of the proposed project is contrary to Smart Growth principles” and is “antithetical to the town’s stated goal of protecting Southold’s environment, maintaining a semblance of rural character.”