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Developers, advisory commission frustrated by response to housing crisis

Pushback on housing proposals and lumbering progress toward a plan for housing solutions ahead of a November referendum seem to have generated growing frustration among developers and Southold Town’s Housing Advisory Commission.

At a virtual meeting last Tuesday, developer Paul Pawlowski, who is working on two affordable housing projects in town, said he may wash his hands of any effort to make a dent in the crisis. While his applications to build an indoor recreational facility and 24 workforce cottages in Peconic have gone smoothly so far, another proposal for medical offices and 40 affordable apartments in Greenport has been met with local pushback.

The Greenport project needs a special exception use permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals to allow apartments over the offices. After a recent ZBA public hearing, which has been held open, the Planning Board classified the project as an unlisted action under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, which would require review under that law. Mr. Pawlowski requested time to propose mitigation for potential impacts identified by the planning department. 

“I would have never bought the property or even applied for it if I had even conceived the fact that this could potentially be determined as a positive declaration, because a positive declaration takes years to go through the motions. It’s a complete disaster for development,” Mr. Pawlowski told the HAC last Tuesday, emphasizing that he does not believe the project warrants such extensive review. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which would be required if a positive declaration is issued under SEQRA, would cost more than $150,000, he said. 

The Greenport project is near hamlet business and would match the architecture of the area, he said. The proposed buildings are also “well within code” and are set back 50 feet from adjacent roads, with plans to screen the development from the road. One criticism has cited the development’s location along a state-designated scenic byway.

Mr. Pawlowski acknowledged that the development would impact traffic. He said he would conduct a traffic study, improve the landscaping plan and suggested he may downgrade the number of affordable apartments to 35 units. He added that the state-proposed roundabout at the neighboring intersection and planned sidewalks would also mitigate traffic. 

“If they issue a [positive declaration], I’m telling you right now, we’re done. Which is a real shame, because I believe in this project … This is a really good project for our community,” Mr. Pawlowski said. “If a pos dec is issued on this, I will venture to say there will be no affordable housing in Southold Town. And I’ll bet [developer Todd Feuerstein’s] projects will go to hell, all of them.

“I as a developer will not put any effort in ever again,” he continued. “My issue in development and planning is, as long as you’re consistent, I can play the game and I’ll follow the code, whatever you say, fair game … But if they issue a pos dec on this, I don’t see how they don’t issue a pos dec on Sports East, which is, to put it in perspective, double the parking requirement. I’ll never apply again, on any project. This is now the fourth affordable housing project that I’ve put forth over the past six years. That would be over half a million invested in not getting past first base.”

Developer Paul Pawlowski pictured in March 2019. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

Developer Todd Feuerstein, who spoke before Mr. Pawlowski, has two proposals of his own pending in town. He expressed concern about a clause in town code prioritizing first responders for affordable housing, as a potential violation of federal Fair Housing laws. He also discussed the progress of his application to build 14 affordable units in Southold, which has spent years in review, and a newer application for workforce housing in Cutchogue. 

“It would be helpful if there was a coordinated effort to kind of streamline the approvals process,” Mr. Feuerstein said. He added that the Southold project hasn’t met negative feedback in public hearings so far and he doesn’t expect the Cutchogue proposal, dubbed Griffing Square, to be as controversial as the recently denied Cutchogue Woods.

The Cutchogue project involves 5.4 acres on Griffing Street, near the post office. Mr. Feuerstein purchased the property a little over a year ago and plans to build a development along the streetfront with retail and six accessory apartments on the second floor. Another piece of the proposal involves developing 24 affordable units on the rear portion of the parcel. He emphasized that this housing, which would be professionally managed, is in the hamlet center and has access to public transportation and other services.

Later in the meeting, HAC members questioned the Town Board’s sincerity in addressing the affordable housing crisis at all, as election day approaches with little sign of a concrete plan for using proceeds from a proposed half-percent tax on real estate transfers.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think the town is serious about having a housing plan,” said HAC member Mark Levine. “I think that everything so far that’s happened says that still, to me, I’m sorry to say. If you can’t somehow get this housing plan to us in the next couple of weeks or very early in October, you’re whistling in a very strong wind.” 

HAC chair Pat Lutsky echoed his concerns, questioning why the Town Board is pushing to hold the referendum this year without a concrete plan for the funds. 

“Maybe they’re looking to have affordable housing not happen in this town,” she said. “There’s not a hell of a lot of time. They’re forcing a referendum in November to collect funds, but I don’t know that the public is going to support the collection of funds when they don’t know what the funds are going to be used for.”

Renderings of the proposed mixed use development in Greenport. Workforce housing would be built above medical offices in a campus style development built by local developer Paul Pawlowski.

Councilwoman Jill Doherty, who is also liaison to the HAC and could not make last Tuesday’s meeting, told a reporter there had been a misunderstanding about the role of HAC in developing the housing fund plan. 

“The [Housing Advisory Commission] itself is charged with reviewing housing projects and keeping the Town Board up to date on some stuff, but they’re not in charge of the referendum,” she said.

A separate board was established to work on solutions, she pointed out, with the first formal meeting held on Wednesday. Mr. Levine was appointed to represent the HAC on that board, and attended the meeting. 

Ms. Doherty emphasized that the half-percent tax hike would be coming from real estate sales, and is not an overall tax hike. There’s a “myriad of ways that we can develop this plan,” she said, adding that opportunities for public feedback and education will be planned before Election Day. The plan itself will likely take another eight months to finalize.

“I will agree with Paul Pawlowski and Mr. Feuerstein that we’ve struggled,” Ms. Doherty said. “This is my 11th year [on the board] and in ‘88, I worked as secretary to Trustees and I was also partially a secretary to community development … We struggled back then, explaining to people. … When you say affordable housing, they think the slums, they think garbage all over. It’s people like you and me who are trying to make a living and afford a decent place to live.” 

Ms. Doherty added: “I think we have to figure out a way to get a lot more education out there to explain to people that this is just a way to help our community thrive, and it’s a stepping stone for people that are just starting out. They might not be able to afford to stay here if the community doesn’t help them out. That’s the problem with Paul Pawlowski; there’s a lot of people against his affordable housing project in Greenport because it’s an empty lot but they don’t realize it’s zoned for what he’s asking for. I think people just don’t like to see change. And once they see, ‘Oh my God, that might have something on it,’ they’re automatically against it. That’s part of the problem.”

In response to concerns about fair housing, Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said establishing a local preference for who occupies affordable units does not violate federal law. 

“Some of the most progressive cities in the US (New York City, San Francisco and Seattle) have local preference provisions built into their affordable housing programs. As long as the provision isn’t a blanket rule, it is defendable,” he said in an email. “[The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] has its own guidelines that prohibit any project with preference requirements from receiving tax credits. That’s not a requirement of the law, it’s just their policy.”

At Wednesday’s meeting — the first formal discussion among the recently appointed Housing Advisory Board — Mr. Levine questioned when the plan would be released for public review. He also suggested looking at what other towns are considering for housing solutions.

A representative for Nelson Pope Voorhis, the consulting agency working on the housing plan for Southold Town, responded that there is no date yet.

“We would like to have recommendations in the coming months, so that way, when we go out to the public, we’re talking about doing a public presentation at the end of October,” said Kathryn Eiseman, who ran the meeting along with town planner Mara Cerezo. “The actual plan will depend on how fast we’re able to get all of the input needed. So we’re going to hustle and try to get it done as soon as we can.”

Ms. Doherty added that the hope is to have enough information for an educated vote released to the public by Election Day in November and then, if the transfer tax is approved, the advisory board would work on finalizing the plan to submit to the Town Board for ultimate approval. “I think it’s important to recognize that to have a successful referendum, as you were alluding to, the public needs to know exactly what they’re voting upon. And what we’re trying to do is not label it as a so-called tax; tax is almost a dirty word to some people, and they’ll just hone in on that and not vote for it,” said Mark Terry, assistant town planning director. He suggested presenting the slides from the meeting to the Town Board, as a first step toward educating the public. 

Ms. Eiseman explained that the fund would not be geared at traditional affordable housing, and would focus on alternative housing solutions to support locals. Median home prices in Southold Town over the past decades have far outstripped the increase in local AMI, she added, noting that as of Sept. 9, there were only six homes and one condo in town priced $600,000 or lower.

The board will oversee funds collected from the half-percent transfer tax, which will be applied to real estate purchases in Southold. Existing property owners will not pay into the fund. The transfer tax could raise between $1 million and $2 million a year for community housing in Southold Town.

The board plans to meet two or three more times before Election Day. Members are working on revisions to a questionnaire to evaluate the need for affordable housing in town.

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