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Editorial: Can we save open space and have affordable housing? 

Affordable housing has long been a critical issue in Southold, even more so since the COVID-19 pandemic brought new residents to town and real estate prices skyrocketed. Million-dollar homes now appear to be the baseline in most neighborhoods.

The lack of workforce housing has left nearly every local fire department in need of new volunteers and help wanted signs hang in the windows of many small businesses. Children move away from their families and home towns after high school to find lower-priced housing elsewhere.

But as affordable housing is a critical issue, so is the question of what we are going to look like going forward and how we can preserve the farmland, open space, salt creeks and bays that make this place unique on Long Island. 

The North Fork is different because we have saved the last vestiges of a semi-rural community on farm soils considered some of the finest in America. To lose more tracts of woods and farmland — and the unique family histories that go with them — would be a tragedy that cannot be undone.

This issue underlies the debate now unfolding in Southold Town about a zone change for the proposed Cut-ch-ogue Woods housing development. So many people were eager to weigh in on the project that the Town Board had to continue last week’s hearing to next month to accommodate them all. 

Can we and should we create affordable housing developments on remaining open space? Looking well down the road, are farmland and woods and the overall appearance of Southold and the health of the environment more important than housing? Just as important? That is the question before us.

At last week’s meeting, winery owner Russ McCall highlighted the value of preserving land over development, saying, in part, “You have to think ahead of what’s going to be here for hundreds of years.” 

Attorney Gail Wickham, whose farming family has been in Cut-ch-ogue since 1699, said Cut-ch-ogue Woods is proposed “in one of the most dense, concentrated farmland areas of the town.”

She made the point, which no doubt any farmer in Southold would also make, that “farming is not necessarily compatible with residential growth and residential uses.”

She added, “I’m not downplaying the need for affordable housing. I’m focusing on the location.”

In April, the town Planning Board released a memo advising against Cut-ch-ogue Woods because of its location in the Agricultural Conservation zoning district, its distance from a hamlet center and concerns about groundwater and the surrounding environment.

For Cutchogue Woods to move forward the Town Board must change the parcel’s zoning to Affordable Housing District. For those who want to save woods and fields, this is too big of a change. To affordable housing advocates, the future of Southold depends on people being able to work and live in the town. 

Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), whose family has farmed here for generations, said affordable housing is a “huge problem,” but added that the town can in no way build its way out of that problem. He also made the point that “there’s so little woodland left on the North Fork.”

We agree. We also believe that saving the town’s semi-rural character is a critical issue facing Southold.