Cutchogue Woods hits dead end as Town Board votes against zone change to accommodate affordable housing proposal

The Southold Town Board voted down a zone change that would have allowed construction of the 24-unit affordable housing proposal dubbed Cutchogue Woods.

The board voted 4-2 at Tuesday’s meeting against the zone change.

Southold resident Rona Smith pitched the townhouse style rental units at 15690 Middle Road in Cutchogue earlier this year in partnership with Georgica Green Ventures, an award-winning developer that has built several other workforce housing developments on the East End. The Cutchogue Woods development needed the Town Board to approve a zone change from Agricultural Conservation to Affordable Housing District in order to move forward.

Town Board members Sarah Nappa and Brian Mealy voted in favor of the zone change, highlighting the need for affordable housing in Southold. Ms. Nappa said she was disappointed that the project has become a political issue.

“This project, while maybe not in the ideal location, is a necessity for this town and as an elected official I’m tired of the lip service that is given to affordable housing and how dire the need is, but yet there’s no perfect parcel and there’s never the right place,” Ms. Nappa said. “This is the fabric of our community. People cannot afford to live here and cannot afford to work here anymore, and people are moving away constantly. For us to not take the steps, and for the town to have not taken the steps in the last 20 years, is disgraceful.”

Mr. Mealy thanked the developers for pushing forward town discussions on workforce housing and said he knows many people who have left the area to seek more affordable housing. “It’s hard for me to know something or to see something or to hear something and then ignore it. I’ve heard the need. I’ve seen the need,” he said. 

Supervisor Scott Russell said it’s not feasible to locate all affordable housing in the HALO but expressed concern about the parcel’s location along a scenic byway, pointing out that the town has spent millions to protect vistas in the area. 

“I will say that, frankly, at the end of the day, it doesn’t meet our affordable housing program,” he added.

Town Board member Greg Doroski also voted against the zone change, citing the project’s location outside a hamlet center, although he praised the project as “one of the best proposals we’ve seen so far.” 

“I do think we need to have a very hard discussion about this priority and locating these sort of high density projects in the hamlet centers,” he said. “During work session today, we charged the planning department with doing this sort of analysis. But until we conduct that, until we have a firm understanding, I am unwilling to go against the express priorities of the community.”

He noted that many people have expressed both support and opposition to the project, and emphasized the need to work on an affordable housing plan. The town has been working with a consultant ahead of a November referendum to pass a new transfer tax meant to fund housing solutions. 

“If we have not successfully provided affordable housing in our community by the time I’m up for election next time, I don’t deserve to be here,” Mr. Doroski added. “And I think the rest of the board members are also in a similar position.”

At a work session earlier that day, planning department officials recommended establishing an affordable housing review committee to review AHD zone change applications and preliminary concept plans. Developers would need to complete a preliminary concept form and provide a developer resume portfolio and qualifications. 

The Town Board also discussed evaluating the financial feasibility of potential projects and potentially altering the allowable density of affordable projects, along with ways to gather input from town committees and the public. They emphasized the need for clarity around the process to develop affordable housing.

Mr. Doroski suggested asking the planning department to analyze how many parcels in hamlet centers could potentially be used for affordable housing developments.

“My major opposition to this is that it’s not in the HALO center,” he said. “We’ve seen that expressed in all of these planning studies, the comprehensive plan and so on and so forth. Ultimately, we may need to move away from that. We may. But maybe we should have some of that discussion before we kill it.”

Town Board members Jill Doherty and Louisa Evans did not offer comment ahead of their votes. At the work session earlier in the day, Ms. Doherty expressed concern about the location and said the board should still vote later that day. The applicants could always come back, she said.

Southold residents expressed mixed opinions on Cutchogue Woods at a public hearing that stretched across two town meetings earlier this summer. Many lauded the proposal as much needed housing in Southold Town while others criticized the development for its location and expressed concern for the environment. The Southold Town Planning Board advised against the zone change ahead of the hearing.

A former chair of the Housing Advisory Commission, Ms. Smith has emphasized that her project is meant to address the affordable housing crisis in Southold. She has also, in response to environmental concerns, offered to preserve 50% of the site in perpetuity. 

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Ms. Smith argued that there are properties much higher on priority lists for preservation and a developer could purchase the parcel to build large homes rather than affordable housing.

“It could be 24 units of affordable housing that you have been saying for weeks is a desperate need and that’s why you want us all to vote for the [housing] referendum,” she said. “This parcel could be [partially] preserved without any cost to the town, could have a 200-foot setback off of Route 25, but by voting no to the zoning change, you would prefer three large luxury houses that have the right to clear the land and install wall-to-wall grass and wall-to-wall irrigation.”

Ms. Smith pointed out that the Housing Advisory Commission has recommended approving the zone change, and that the comprehensive plan did not “explicitly prohibit the siting of workforce housing in any zone.”

She added that around 80% of comments she’s tallied from public comments and letters have been in favor of the project. A petition on to approve the zone change has gained nearly 250 signatures in about three weeks.

“Don’t let perfect get in the way of the much needed progress. These 24 units won’t solve the problem,” she said. “But this is progress. This is going in the right direction. This is a viable project.”

Correction: An original version of this article said the Economic Development Committee supported a zone change for the project, in attribution to Ms. Smith. The Economic Development Committee has written a letter supporting workforce housing, but has not taken a position on any one project.