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Q&A: Developer Rona Smith talks process and solutions after affordable housing proposal fails

The parcel pitched for the Cutchogue Woods affordable housing proposal may hit the market after the Town Board voted down a zone change that would have allowed the application to move forward. 

The Cutchogue Woods development would have brought 24 affordable units to Southold in the midst of what town officials have called a housing crisis. 

In a recent interview with The Suffolk Times, developer and longtime Southold resident Rona Smith said she’s not yet sure what to do with the property, but she’s thinking about selling it — which means a future owner may establish residential units, several types of businesses or farms as-of-right. 

Ms. Smith spoke about the future of affordable housing in Southold in the wake of the zone change denial, as the town continues to ponder potential solutions. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: Southold is facing a housing crisis. What kind of solutions do you think the town is looking for?

A: One of the main things to think about in town related to affordable housing is the referendum. [Note: A November referendum is scheduled to approve a half-percent transfer tax for housing solutions.] We have our town leaders talking about a referendum, and they just turned down what appears to many people to be a viable project. I think what’s going to happen now is they’re going to look at the issues like building in a hamlet or not building in a hamlet. 

One of the things they’re discussing is where affordable housing should be located, how many units per site should be allowed — all factual things, all things which are related to the Cutchogue Woods proposal. But these are sort of procedural code issues and not really about the referendum. The referendum is: How are we going to spend the money? It’s not so much policy as process. 

In terms of process, a housing fund was created years ago. Unless they are a conservation subdivision putting aside land, an ordinary subdivision has to have 20% of the number of units as affordable units. So that means for a developer like Harvest Pointe with, let’s say, a round number of 100 units, that means they need to provide 20 units of affordable housing. And they can provide them on the site, they can build them on another site, or they can buy out for a fee per unit. That’s a hell of a lot of money. And that money has gone into this housing fund. 

Q: What do you mean by ‘buy out’?

A: Instead of building affordable housing, they would take the financial responsibility to see it built. It’s supposed to be in the purview of the Housing Advisory Commission to see how that money is spent. Now, that money, no matter how much there’s ever been, has never built even one unit of affordable housing.

What does our Town Board do with money that’s allocated toward affordable housing? 

With Vineyard View, they gave them $25,000 a unit toward the abstract concept of infrastructure and that lump sum went to the developers of Vineyard View. That was never a thing that would get Vineyard View built or not built, didn’t get them over the finish line or anything. When I was chair of HAC, what I wanted them to do is — let’s say they were commissioned to build 50; build 51 and say that one came from the housing fund. But not one unit of affordable housing was ever created from that. The thing is, the town had money that it could bring to affordable housing, but it never brought it.

Q: What’s your opinion of town discussions on the housing plan so far, and how they plan to spend those funds? 

A: There are two levels of it. You know, what policies that the town will have — something like allowing 36 or 48 units per site. Also, they’re never built in hamlets because the land is too expensive and too scarce and too congested. Cutchogue was up in arms for 10 years about Harvest Pointe because they worried about congestion. And so suddenly, my decision to perhaps put it where congestion wouldn’t be an issue and where neighbors wouldn’t be an issue, became the issue. One thing I should say, and I think you’ve probably noticed this by now, is that there is always opposition to affordable housing.

Q: It usually seems to be connected to location. 

A: It’s going to be about water, it’s going to be about density, it’s going to be about community character. People never stand up and say, “I’m against affordable housing.” They know it’s a good word, so they can’t be against it. In this particular instance, I think the fact that one landowner was very seriously against it. And I don’t really know what underlies her opposition but it was so strident. The day she wrote her letter to the Planning Board, they reiterated her points in a letter to the Town Board, rejecting the proposal. 

Q: Do you think that’s where things started to go south, in terms of the Town Board considering an approval? 

A: Absolutely. That was the turnaround day. We never even had a yellow light, much less a red light before that. It’s really pretty upsetting in terms of the process of the town, in terms of its ability to make decisions.

Q: What do you think needs to change as the town moves toward a solution for the housing crisis? 

A: They have to respect their own committees. People who volunteer for committees are a random bunch, and they all come with their own particular agendas. For them to come to a consensus is really complicated and difficult, so when they present the Town Board with a consensus it has to be respected, or else you’re just disrespecting people for bringing their time and attention to a problem. 

Q: You have a lot of experience on town committees and with affordable housing in particular. Can you describe that experience for me?

A: I and several other people were on the Housing Advisory Commission from day one. It was put in place when The Cottages were first proposed in Mattituck in 2004. We were given the responsibility to oversee The Cottages and we were given the responsibility to oversee the housing fund. But the only time they wanted our opinion was when it echoed their opinion. 

Before they took the vote on Cut-ch-ogue Woods, the supervisor spoke right before he voted and he said, “There was so much opposition to this.” I received the whole packet of letters that they had gotten and we tallied all the people who spoke at all the work sessions and we came up with 80% positive and 20% negative. I don’t understand what he was referring to. It makes me feel that the opposition letters were weighted. 

Q: What does the future look like for this property, and for your involvement in affordable housing? 

A: I haven’t done anything, but I think it probably will be sold. I just don’t know. One of the things I’ve picked up over my income research was that the median income has gone down in Southold Town since 2015 by 23%. That is so serious. Every other East End town has had an increase in median income. If this property becomes another set of large luxury houses, it really kind of reinforces a movement to this being a second-home owner paradise. What is the lack of housing doing to the town? These are issues that should be part of the discussion.

Q: Have you been invited to participate in discussions about housing solutions? 

A: No, I have not been. I think they think it’s about winning and losing, and it isn’t that way for me at all. It’s about making it better. 

Q: This year’s discussions about affordable housing seem to have kicked off with your proposal for Cutchogue Woods. How do you think the application has impacted local conversation? 

A: All the issues the town is dealing with — house size, zoning issues — they all lean into each other. Even the comprehensive plan and where that fits in terms of policy, they never really defined that. The plan was written before 2015, so it’s not even timely. So much of it doesn’t fit together with reality. What they’re doing really does have consequences. The only people we’ll have left here are well-to-do people, or people who inherited their homes, or people who are okay with staying in their homes forever, very very rich people, and people who don’t have the money to even leave. It’s changing the demographics. It’s the big picture that matters.