Southold Supervisor Scott Russell, in his State of the Town address Thursday night, called on officials to create 50 affordable apartments in the next three years to stem the flow of young people from the rural North Fork.
Russell devoted much of his seventh annual address to the issue, saying it’s time Southold officials set clear goals for affordable housing and adjust town laws to make it easier for developers to build apartments.
“We know that the need for affordable housing is critical and have a general understanding of how many new units are needed, yet have produced nothing more than a wish list in the past few years,” Russell said before several dozen residents at Town Hall.
Long Island’s long-standing problems with affordable housing are especially acute in Southold, where year-round residents increasingly compete with second-home owners and retirees drawn to the scenic North Fork, according to a 2012 draft of Southold’s comprehensive plan.
But building apartments has proved an explosive issue in a town where residents take pride in maintaining a semblance of rural life, officials said.
“Affordable housing in Southold Town has been nearly nonexistent,” Councilman James Dinizio Jr. said in an interview.
He added the town’s aggressive land preservation efforts, while vital to maintaining the rural scenery, have contributed to a lack of housing.
Southold officials, Russell said, should pursue “small scale” projects spread across the town’s eight hamlets, not large-scale apartment complexes likely to stir fears about overdevelopment on the North Fork. A developer abandoned plans for a 75-unit complex in Mattituck last year after neighbors objected to the project’s scale.
Russell, in his speech, proposed loosening zoning rules to allow 12 apartments per acre, up from the current limit of six, and suggested a cap of 24 apartments per project. He also said town officials should change the town code to make it easier for developers to build apartments in commercial areas.
Dinizio, liaison to the town’s housing advisory commission, said Russell is “on the right track” but expressed reservations about apartments taking up the town’s scant commercial space.
Russell, a Republican who won a fourth term last year, called for a “far-reaching and ambitious” education campaign to clear up “a lack of understanding about who we’re trying to help.”
“These are young single professionals,” he said. “If you want to know who they are, if you want to meet them, go down to the firehouse. Or wait till they respond to an emergency at your home and shake their hand.”
Rona Smith, chairwoman of the housing advisory commission, said its members would begin meeting with community groups in March to try to allay fears over affordable housing.
Southold, she said, has a cautionary tale across Peconic Bay, where many residents of East Hampton and Southampton have been priced out of their ancestral hometowns.
“The South Fork started out in the same place as Southold, with multigenerational families who farmed and fished, and essentially it’s passed its topple point,” she said. “We have a good example in front of us.”