Guest Spot: Let’s move ahead on Cutchogue Woods

According to The New York Times, the buzz in real estate circles is that the North Fork is the next Hamptons. That brings to mind the story Abe Lincoln told about the poor fellow who was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail: “If it wasn’t for the honor, I’d just as soon walk.”

New interest by affluent out-of-towners has driven real estate prices sky high. That’s great news if you own your home. If you don’t, you’re cooked. How could anyone making $85,000 a year — the median family income in Southold — seriously bid on a property that costs $800,000, the median value of recent real estate transfer transactions?

Normally the alternative to owning a home is to rent. The rental market has all but disappeared in Southold. The available supply of houses and apartments for rent has met only 10% of the demand.

If houses are out of sight and rental properties scarce, where do you live? In the Carolinas, too many young families decide; they are calling the moving van. Another set of grandparents says goodbye to grandkids as they are off to Charlotte.

Given these depressing facts, we should applaud any effort to go against the tide. A new effort — Cutchogue Woods — proposes to build affordable housing on a wooded, 6-acre property on the North Road, west of Depot Lane. Cutchogue Woods is not a large project — it plans only 24 units — but it promises to be a model of its kind.

Cutchogue Woods is a partnership between Rona Smith and Georgica Green Ventures. Both have impeccable reputations. Rona Smith is a dedicated volunteer who has served town government in many roles including as chair of the Housing Advisory Commission. 

Georgica Green Ventures has made a name for developing and managing top-flight affordable housing projects. It wins Smart Growth awards. It developed Sandy Hollow Cove in Speonk in the Town of Southampton and Gansett Meadows in East Hampton. More than eight in ten of its new tenants have been local people.

Southold Town should embrace Cutchogue Woods. Instead the project is fighting to survive. June 21 is important as the town board will consider whether to grant Cutchogue Woods the zoning change it must have if it is to build on its six acres. 

The question next week is not whether to approve Cutchogue Woods. That decision is much further down the road. Rather, the question is simply whether to permit the proposal to go forward by passing the zoning change. If the board votes no, then Cutchogue Woods dies. It will die without a public hearing on its merits. Its death will send a sorry signal that Southold town government still isn’t serious about affordable housing.

Amazingly, the planning board has recommended that the town board deny the zoning change because it says the proposed site is not within walking distance of public transit along Main Road or of the Cutchogue post office, the hamlet’s official center. It doesn’t “fully comply” with the town’s 2020 strategic plan.

The planning board’s objection boggles the mind. It is so defeatist. It is a sadly mistaken effort to protect a mythical group of people — tenants who can’t afford cars — that exists only in the planners’ imagination.

People who live in affordable housing live their lives like the rest of us. They drive to work and school. They drive to the bank and the supermarket. They drive to doctors. They drive to see friends. They drive to church. Southold’s mass transit — transit that actually transports masses of people — is in fact the car (or maybe the pickup truck).

No family could get by if it had to depend on Suffolk County Transit buses. You can’t lug home four bags of groceries from the IGA. You can’t drop off your skirts at the dry cleaners. You can’t picnic at Founders Landing. You can’t visit friends in New Suffolk. You can’t work for Sang Lee Farms, Chris Mohr, Macari Vineyards, or anyone else off Main Road. You certainly can’t bring home a tree from Shamrock Christmas Tree Farm.

If the town board is consistent, it should vote June 21 in favor of Cutchogue Woods. Vineyard View, the new affordable housing project on the border with Greenport, was given a green light even though it’s miles from downtown Greenport. No one worried about a pedestrian path to public transit.

Town Supervisor Scott Russell has done his level best for affordable housing. It’s hard to believe the town board would strangle Cutchogue Woods in its cradle. But nothing is certain until it’s approved. 

 The hearing is at 4:30 p.m. Anyone who cares about the dearth of low income housing should show up and speak up for Cutchogue Woods. That includes business owners who can’t find workers; fire departments that can’t find volunteers; pastors who can’t fill pews; school superintendents who can’t fill classrooms.

One way or another, the Cutchogue Woods acreage is sure to be developed. If Cutchogue Woods is blocked, the land will be cut up into 2-acre residential lots. You can bet the purchasers will be rich newcomers building vacation mansions that look like they’re trucked over from Water Mill. This small corner of Southold will become the Hamptons.

Mr. Andrews is a former member of the Housing Advisory Commission.