Town considers zoning changes, removes cap on affordable housing units

Lots in districts zoned for affordable housing within Southold could soon see more intense development following changes to the town’s zoning code that were approved by the Town Board earlier this month.

After a public hearing March 14, the board voted unanimously to remove a section of code limiting development to 24 dwelling units on sites within affordable housing districts, regardless of their size.

Though some residents voiced concerns about the potential impact of the change, Supervisor Scott Russell attempted to allay fears by referring to the unit cap as “essentially an artificial ceiling.”

“You are limited to 24 [units] whether you are building them on 5 acres or 25 acres,” the supervisor wrote in an email to The Suffolk Times Monday. “That seems like an arbitrary cap.”

The zoning code also lacks a clear definition of what constitutes a “unit,” or whether studios and two-bedroom apartments should count equally.

Ultimately, Mr. Russell expects the removal of the cap will have more of an impact on larger properties and noted that the county Health Department calculates allowable density based on septic flow.

Proposed new developments would still be subject to full administrative review, including by the Town Board and Planning Board. 

“[It] doesn’t automatically allow someone to build more units per project,” the supervisor said. 

One of the main concerns surrounding increased development is wastewater management.

County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), who is running for town supervisor, spoke at the meeting and cautioned that innovative/alternative, or I/A, septic systems, which remove nitrogen from wastewater before it enters the groundwater, are not specifically designed to deal with increased density.

“You have to be careful if you’re going to rely on [the county health department] to set your density,” Mr. Krupski said at the hearing. “You really have to do the zoning at the [town] level.”

In an interview Monday, Mr. Krupski, who worked on the county code known as Article 19, which set the groundwork for encouraging and eventually requiring I/A systems, said density was a key part of the discussions at the time.

“The whole point [of the I/A septic systems] is to decrease pollution into the aquifer,” he said, suggesting that increased density could potentially undermine those efforts.

The code amendment comes as another affordable housing proposal makes its way through the review process.

At its March 14 meeting, the Town Board also held a public hearing on a potential change of zone for a 5-acre property on Carroll Avenue in Peconic.

If approved, the property’s zoning would change from Agricultural Conservation (A-C) to Affordable Housing District (AHD).

Local developer Paul Pawlowski is seeking to build 24 cottage-style, affordable rentals on the property that would include one- and two-bedroom units and mimic the design of The Cottages at Mattituck, a development of 22 homes built in 2006 and sold to lottery winners at affordable rates.

The proposed units in Peconic were part of a larger application for a recreational facility on the property dubbed “Sports East” that would have included athletic fields and an indoor swimming pool. Citing current economic pressures, Mr. Pawlowski withdrew plans for the sports facility in December but has said he remains committed to bringing affordable housing to Peconic.

The availability of affordable housing remains a top issue, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic upended the real estate market. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development considers housing unaffordable if costs exceed 30% of total household income. The Southold Town comprehensive plan cites the American Community Survey 2012-2016 Five Year Estimate, which found nearly 50% of renters and more than 30% of homeowners in Southold Town spend more than 30% of their income on housing. Southold Town maintains an affordable housing registry that currently counts more than 300 names.

In an interview Monday, Mr. Pawlowski said that in light of the removal of the 24 unit cap, he may consider increasing the number of units from 24 to 32, though no formal plans to do so have been submitted.

Mr. Pawlowski said the Cottages in Mattituck set a “really good precedent” and said he’d plan to have a property manager living on the site, which would be maintained and feature green space.

“Personally, I think individual living is nice if you’re renting or owning,” Mr. Pawlowski said. “This is a real stepping stone.” 

At the hearing, several Carroll Avenue residents shared their concerns with the potential change of zone that would pave the way for the cottages to be built.

“I don’t want it — and I think I speak for a lot of neighbors on our road,” said Lisa Rosa, who raised concerns about traffic and water quality.

Resident Rachel Flatley highlighted issues that ranged from potential environmental impacts to neighborhood safety, pointing out that the property is located within close proximity to Tasker Park, home to Little League baseball fields and a popular playground.

Many residents drew parallels between the proposed new cottages and the Vineyard View apartments that were completed in Greenport three years ago.

Several pointed out that the Vineyard View lottery was open to all Suffolk County residents, not just those who lived locally, and recalled the botched lottery for those apartments that had to be redone in 2020.

Ms. Flatley, citing police department data, claimed that officers responded to 135 police calls at the Vineyard View complex in 2021 and 2022. 

Mr. Russell said that while he understands the concerns that have stemmed from Vineyard View, the zoning was already in place, meaning that the Town Board did not have control over its approval.

He said Conifer Realty, the developer behind the complex, is responsible for the “mismanagement” of the property.

“I hope Conifer never even applies for an application to do business of any kind in Southold ever again,” the supervisor said. “[Vineyard View] is mismanagement on Conifer’s part — not just for the community, but for the people that live there. They deserve better management.”

Ms. Flatley also spoke out against the change of zone itself, since the Peconic property is currently designated for agricultural uses.

But despite that designation, building single-family dwellings is an allowed use on A-C properties, according to Chapter 280 of the town code.

“Houses can be built there now, whether we change the zone or not,” said council member Jill Doherty. “He can come in and build houses there and just not make them affordable.”

Appearing at the Tuesday’s Town Board meeting, Ms. Flatley submitted 17 letters from neighbors in the area and noted that an online petition she started had over 260 signatures.

Neighbors again spoke out against the proposal this week.

Charlotte Spano, who lives on the street, said it’s “not conducive” to have rentals in Peconic. Another neighbor, Jacquelyn Hubbard, worried that the project would have a disparate impact on what she said is a historically Black neighborhood.

“It’s complete disregard for the people that live on Carroll Avenue,” she said.

Others argued that changing the proposal from Sports East to affordable housing felt like a “bait and switch” by both the town and developer.

Southold Town purchased the 10 acre property in 2018 for $750,000 with the intent of bringing a recreational facility to the area. In January 2021, The Suffolk Times reported that Mr. Pawlowski introduced plans to include affordable rentals on a portion of the parcel.

At Tuesday’s meeting, town officials said they remain hopeful that a sports facility can one day be built there.

“It’s not the whole 10-acre parcel,” Councilman Greg Doroski emphasized, noting that the property would be subdivided and the housing would be set on five acres. “We’re saving the remaining parcel — or at least the intent is — for a sports facility until we can find someone who’s willing and able to do it.”

The Town Board closed the public hearing on the change of zone for the Carroll Ave. property on March 14, but left the comment period on the zoning change open for 30 days. The board is expected to vote on that proposal at their next meeting on April 11.