A night local civics have worked toward for more than a year came and went Tuesday, with community members spilling out of Town Hall for a hearing to limit house size in Southold.
Most speakers were in favor of the proposed law, although a few — including a real estate agent, an attorney and a developer — expressed concern about potential impacts of the new restrictions. The proposed legislation would establish “maximum limits on house size based on lot size” in residential and agricultural-conservation zoning districts, according to a town notice.
The town has noted the amendment is “necessary to maintain the community character of the residential communities as called for in the Comprehensive Plan.” Representatives from local civic groups worked with the Town Board on the proposed legislation for more than a year, after years of community discussion.
Civic leaders have pointed out that current code in Southold permits 20% lot coverage in most residential districts and houses may occupy as much as 40,000 square feet on two acres.
Under the proposed legislation, the very largest homes allowed would be limited to 10,100 square feet on five acres plus one percent of any additional lot area beyond that. Homes built on a quarter-acre lot could be no larger than 2,100 square feet.
Roof heights would also be limited under the new law; residential buildings with sloping roofs would be limited to a height of 35 feet and residential buildings with flat or mansard roofs would be limited to a height of 25 feet. A pyramid clause would further limit roof heights near property lines. Houses that already exceed new limits when the law is passed would be deemed non-conforming. Gross floor area restrictions would not apply to farm labor housing. New construction, reconstruction or improvement of any houses would be limited by the standards set by code, or by a Zoning Board of Appeals variance that may not exceed the average gross floor area of homes in the immediate area.
“This complex is actually 110,000 square feet and the home in that complex is 62,000 square feet,” said civic leader Anne Murray, holding up a photo of a house in the Hamptons. “Construction such as that prompted towns in the Hamptons to add limits on house size in their jurisdictions. Southold and Riverhead have no such restrictions.”
The construction of large “out-of-character” houses in Southold prompted civic groups to move forward with research and efforts to work with the town, she said. “We hope that the Town Board will vote yes on this needed code change before we see Southold’s small-town-feel disappear.”
Other civic leaders, a representative from Group for the East End and several residents spoke in favor of the legislation. The Board of Trustees and Planning Board also submitted letters in support of the code.
“Month after month, we get applicants — mostly expeditors and attorneys — that apply to us for monstrous houses that are not within our code to do anything with but mitigate the environmental factors as best we can. This proposed change will help us immensely with that,” trustee Nick Krupski said at the hearing. “Every month, it’s someone new saying this is my dream house. I’m gonna live here forever. They build a monstrous house that does not fit in with the character of the neighborhood, and then it’s listed on Zillow for $3.4 million two months later after it’s done. This is something that we have not had the power to deal with. I really appreciate your efforts.”
Zoning Board of Appeals chair Leslie Weismann said the entire board unanimously supports the code and the ZBA participated in shaping the legislation.
“We are burdened now with houses being proposed on lots that begin with a blank slate. They have every opportunity to do what the code requires them to do and yet they come in with three and four and five variance requests. The reason we are so delayed is because there are so many buildings under construction here,” she said.
“No code is ever written in a perfect way but unless we understand it in context of what we are trying to do to preserve our community, nothing will change. And we must manage change responsibly,” she added. “We have a responsibility to balance out the reasonable rights of property owners. We all own property. We want to protect it. But we also have the responsibility to ensure that what we do on our property does not adversely affect water quality and does not adversely affect our neighbors. I urge you to pass this legislation.”
Local architect Meryl Kramer said she felt “conflicted” about the legislation. She agrees with the Town Board’s goal to downsize houses in town; the size of some homes under construction is upsetting, she said.
But, as someone who “meticulously” complies with code and avoids going to the maximum, she questioned how the code would impact some ongoing projects, such as a four-bedroom house on a small lot that would not comply with new regulations.
The designs are done, she said. They’re ready to submit for a building permit and the house does comply with current code. “What happens to this project and other projects when this code goes into effect if we’ve already submitted to health, or we already submitted to the DEC, or gotten approval from the ZBA or trustees? What’s the timeline for putting this code into effect?” she asked.
Local attorney Patricia Moore, on the other hand, said she found the law concerning.
“I wasn’t invited to participate in any of the meetings that have occurred with regard to the civic associations’ suggestions for adoption of this law, but the Southampton example is a not very applicable example to this community,” she said. “We do have large pieces but we also do have other programs that are used to encourage people to develop proportionately, to sell their development rights to preserve land, to maintain agricultural uses.”
She said she has technical concerns about the way the law is structured, especially over the restrictions on sky planes and how they might impact homes at risk for flooding that are subject to FEMA regulations. She also argued that variances are unreasonably expensive to apply for and the lack of accessibility to building department records online makes it difficult to calculate average liveable floor area in neighborhoods.
Scott Edgett, owner of construction company North Fork Woodworks, questioned how the regulations might impact the local economy. He said while some houses in town are “slightly untasteful” and “a little oversized,” and code changes could be good, the town should have included local architects, contractors and other stakeholders in crafting the code. He also pointed out that many coastal houses need first floor elevation, which could be impacted by the code, and suggested waiting at least a year before implementing the code, to allow ongoing projects time to finish.
“I’m not trying to be selfish or greedy and say we just want to build what we’re referring to as McMansions. But we want to make sure that it is feasible to be able to build on the properties that we have,” he said.
Local real estate agent Tom McCarthy said he thinks limits on house sizes are appropriate but he’s not sure the two-and-a-half story limit makes sense for houses.
“I think the building code and the fire code kind of holds that back a little bit. So I don’t know if there’s been an analysis of this or opinion by the building department,” he said. “Most folks don’t want to have another set of stairs going up to a third level, which is somewhat of a phantom half story.”
Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the Long Island Builders Institute issued an opinion supporting the legislation and it’s looser than it has been described. Most homes in town would not be impacted, he said.