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Town Board changes course, sets public hearing ahead of November housing referendum

The Southold Town Board, in a sudden change of heart, suggested they may plug ahead with a referendum on a new half-percent transfer tax for housing solutions this November after all. A public hearing has been set for Aug. 2. 

At a work session last Tuesday, the board said they have until Aug. 8 to add the proposition on the ballot. Town Supervisor Scott Russell suggested that by then, as the town works out a plan with a consultant, the public “might have an idea of where we’re going.” 

“As long as the public has a clear understanding of what we expect from the plan, what will be in it, the direction we’re going in, it’s not like a blind vote. It’s different when you don’t have a plan itself but when you have a clear understanding of what the plan’s going to end up being, maybe it’s not so difficult to ask the public to vote on it,” Mr. Russell said, pointing out that waiting another year to hold the vote could mean losing millions for the program.

The board had previously said the vote would likely be held off for another year after missing a June deadline. They argued it would be better to complete a plan for the incoming funds before it was put on the ballot, so the public would fully understand what they’re voting for. 

Councilman Greg Doroski suggested moving the vote up might “light a fire under our bottoms” to complete a housing plan. He said if the board can outline priorities, he thinks people would support the proposition.

“If anything has become clear in the public hearing about [Cut­ch­ogue Woods], everyone realizes there’s an affordable housing crisis in Southold Town,” he said. “It would be very troubling to me if we put this up for a vote and people at one side of their mouth said there’s a crisis, and then out of the other side of their mouth voted against a referendum that works towards solving that crisis.”

Councilwoman Jill Doherty pointed out there’s many ways to address the housing crisis and said she feels the town is “far enough along” in the process, especially after meeting with the consultant, that the referendum can be held in November. 

The Town Board plans to hold a public hearing on the new transfer tax on Aug. 2 at 9 a.m. A resolution passed to set the hearing last Tuesday notes the severity of the housing crisis in Southold. It also outlines several ways to use funds from the tax, which the town would start collecting in April. 

Some proposed solutions include:

• Financial assistance to first-time homebuyers who live or are employed in town in the form of a grant or loan that wouldn’t exceed half of the property’s value.

• Financial assistance for community housing in conjunction with a public/private partnership for employer-assisted housing.

• The actual production of community housing for sale to eligible individuals by the town.

• The actual production of community housing for sale to eligible individuals in conjunction with a public/private partnership where the partner agrees to comply with state and local guidelines. 

• The actual production and maintenance of community housing for rent to eligible individuals either by the town or the town Housing Authority, or with a public/private partnership in compliance with state and local guidelines. 

• The rehabilitation of existing buildings and structures in town to convert into community housing for sale or rent.

• The acquisition of interests in real property in existing housing units for community housing to sell or rent to eligible individuals.

• The provision of housing counseling services by nonprofits authorized by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The resolution also proposes the creation of an advisory board to review and make recommendations on the town community housing plan with representation from between seven and 15 town residents; the construction industry; the real estate industry; the banking industry; three local housing advocates; and a Village of Greenport resident. 

The village has to pass a resolution opting into the plan and submit it to the Town Board, the proposed legislation says. If it opts in, an intergovernmental agreement would be established to outline the rights and responsibilities of each government on community housing opportunities. Properties in Greenport are still subject to the transfer tax if the village opts out. 

Mayor George Hubbard of Greenport village said at work session last Thursday that he hasn’t been informed of the Aug. 2 hearing or the town’s change of plans on the referendum. 

“My understanding is that they originally didn’t want to put it on for referendum, so they actually had a plan together for the community to read. They have now taken a different stance that apparently they’ve been informed that they can get it on the November ballot,” Trustee Mary Bess Phillips said, referring to last Tuesday’s Town Board work session. 

She added that her understanding is that the board is more comfortable with holding the referendum as they’ve started working with a consultant to put the plan together. 

Mr. Hubbard questioned why a representative from Greenport hasn’t been chosen to discuss the housing plan yet. A committee has not yet been established.

“We passed a resolution saying we wanted in. Now it’s up to them to appoint somebody from the village to the committee to go in to do this,” he said. “We opted out the first time 22 years ago on the CPF money, and we’re still getting screwed on that.” 

Village attorney Joseph Prokop recommended reaching out to the town to remind them that the village wants to be included in discussions about the housing plan and they expect to have a representative on a housing committee. 

Mr. Hubbard later criticized the town’s response at a joint meeting last month after village trustees requested to draw from CPF funds to revamp the village sewer system for water quality purposes.

“At that meeting it was mentioned numerous times that CPF should not subsidize sewer ratepayers, sewer ratepayers should pay it themselves,” he said. “My feeling is, the village homebuyers in Greenport should not subsidize the CPF money to be spent in Southold, Cut­ch­ogue and Mattituck … They said they can’t support us, we should not have to support them.” 

“Village homebuyers have paid more than $1.2 million to the town in CPF money. They have not spent any money back in Greenport village in 22 years. That’s a fact,” Mr. Hubbard added. “And now we’re asking them to go and add another half-percent to go towards affordable housing. Our track record is not very good with them collecting money for us.”

Ms. Phillips said the town needs to change code to give CPF money to the village. The trustees need to ask them to move forward with establishing a process for the village to access those funds, she said. 

“I agree with you. But I think we also need to say to them, you know, get your act together, get your code going so that we have the availability because we’re entitled to it. Our residents are paying into it, we’re entitled to that money,” she said.

Mr. Hubbard said he never would have “signed off for the rights to have [CPF] go to the town” if he had been in charge at the time. He would have kept taxes collected in the village under “home rule.” 

“We can’t change that now. We can change it moving forward with the other half-percent if they do it,” he said.

The Peconic Bay Region Community Housing Act, signed into law in October, allows the five East End towns to hold referendums on adding 0.5% to the 2% community preservation tax on real estate transactions in those municipalities. Each town needs to present a plan for the funds before holding a referendum. 

Consulting agency Nelson Pope Voorhis has started working on a housing solutions plan with the Town Board, with an initial discussion held in mid-July. NPV plans to hold at least four public meetings and aims to finalize a housing plan in November. 

Both Southampton and East Hampton have released draft housing solution plans, as reported by local outlets. Gerry Siller, supervisor of Shelter Island, said the town is on track to vote on the proposition this November. 

After decades of relatively few solutions presented to tackle the affordable housing crisis, the problem has been shoved into the limelight in recent months with several proposals for workforce developments across town. 

Last Tuesday, the Town Board discussed writing a list of criteria for developments — in a conversation separate from the referendum — after a presentation on a potential application process from the Housing Advisory Commission and Planning Board. Their primary suggestion was to reestablish an affordable welcoming committee to meet with prospective developers.