Times Review Talks: Addressing affordable housing on the North Fork

More than 70 community members attended the first “Times Review Talks,” a two-hour panel discussion on the North Fork’s affordable housing crisis, at Vineyard Caterers in Aquebogue Feb. 27. 

The discussion among business owners, builders, real estate professionals, local government officials and other community members covered a range of topics, from the housing market and wages to sewage and zoning issues.

“We will not solve the issue of affordable housing on the North Fork today. That is far too lofty of a goal,” said Times Review Media Group content director Grant Parpan in his opening remarks. “But through a thoughtful, respectful dialogue on this very serious problem, we will hopefully each come to a better understanding of the issue and perhaps some folks will leave here today with a germ of an idea that could make some sort of a difference for someone.”

Much of the discussion last Wednesday centered around a lack of sewers on the North Fork.

Audience member Nancy Messer of Bridgehampton National Bank asked the Southold Town representatives on the panel if there’s been any consideration given to creating a sewage treatment plant, similar to Greenport and Riverhead.

Southold Town government liaison officer Denis Noncarrow said most government officials would say a potential sewage treatment plant is too “cost-prohibitive.”

“That’s just what you’re going to hear,” he said. “It’s going to open the floodgates of development.”

Who was on the panel?

George Giannaris, Hellenic Snack Bar & Restaurant
Thomas McCarthy, Thomas J. McCarthy Real Estate, Inc.
Paul Pawlowski, Pawlowski Construction
Allen Handelman, Conifer Realty
Rona Smith, Southold Housing Advisory Commission
Denis Noncarrow, Southold government liaison officer
Moderator: Grant Parpan, Times Review Media Group

Suffolk County has been looking at alternative septic systems, or cluster systems, which would remove nitrogen, Mr. Noncarrow added. But the Suffolk County Department of Health Services hasn’t come forth with a plan for septic requirements, thus delaying the process.

Fellow panelist Thomas McCarthy of Thomas J. McCarthy Real Estate said a plan by the town to allow for affordable rental apartments on private property has also been restricted by the health department.

“The town has been doing its job; it’s a health department, it’s a density issue,” he said. “I think there’s plenty of folks that want to give property … But the backstop is really the health department.”

More than 70 people attended the event at The Vineyards at Aquebogue. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

Mr. Noncarrow said an affordable housing unit built on a homeowner’s property would require a $1.2 million septic system.

“The septic issue is really something around our neck — we’re having a tough time,” he said.

Mr. McCarthy said the affordable housing inventory across the North Fork is almost non-existent and there’s little to show potential home buyers with moderate income. The median price for a non-waterfront home increased by nearly $55,000 to about $580,000 in the past two years, he said.

Even in Riverhead, where home costs are lower than in Southold, taxes are higher, Mr. McCarthy said. So while interest rates remain low, there isn’t much opportunity for first-time home buyers.

“When [interest rates] go up it’s going to exacerbate the problem on the North Fork,” he said.

Future of wineries on the North Fork

The next Times Review Talks will be held at noon on Wednesday, March 27, again at Vineyard Caterers. The topic will be the future of Wineries on the North Fork. Panelists will include town supervisors Scott Russell and Laura Jens-Smith along with wine industry professionals. The $30 price ($25 for subscribers) includes a four-course meal. Be the first to get tickets here.

In recent years, rentals have been one of the few solutions offered on affordable housing. Panelist Allen Handelman of Conifer Realty spoke about his company’s proposed Vineyard View in Greenport, which aims to bring 50 affordable rental units to a complex that would hook into the Greenport Village sewage system.

Conifer Realty also partnered on Peconic Crossing in Riverhead, which features 45 rental units. More than 900 applicants entered the lottery for that complex.

Sarah Nappa, small-business owner and candidate for Southold Town Board, asked Mr. Handelman what systems are in place to keep Vineyard View affordable over the long haul, pointing to a prior affordable housing project in Greenport that allowed for the units to be resold at market rate.

Mr. Handelman said Vineyard View is being funded by New York State and the units must remain at the affordable rates for 50 years. Southold Town’s Housing Advisory Commission keeps track of the units.

Panelist Rona Smith, chairwoman of the commission, said it’s important to note that while the units are being kept affordable, it’s being built not in an affordable housing district but rather through Hamlet Density zoning. Ten acres of the property are being preserved as open space.

“You need to balance density and land preservation,” Mr. Handelman said. “The more you can create smaller but dense communities, you’re preserving land, and you’re also creating a situation where a small, private sewage treatment plant can start to be viable.”

Southold Housing Commission chair Rona Smith was among the panelists at the event. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

Ms. Smith said Southold Town’s affordable housing zoning caps the number of units in a particular project at 24, which she said is simply not enough.

“We really feel that it’s something we’re addressing with the Town Board to change,” Ms. Smith said. “It makes it impossible to make the numbers work.”

Fellow panelist Paul Pawlowski, who several years ago proposed 75 affordable rental units on a property he owns in Mattituck, said he felt that project was stopped after town officials withdrew support following backlash from the community.

“Nobody wants it in their backyard,” Mr. Pawlowski said of attitudes about affordable housing.

He said if the community was serious about solving the affordable housing crisis, the option of developing preserved land for this purpose would be on the table, an idea that was met with some pushback from the audience.

“You could do 500 units on 2 percent of what we have preserved,” he said.

[Editor’s Note: The following three paragraphs have been edited since this article was initially published to more accurately reflect the comments of Councilman Jim Dinizio. His remarks at the event were grossly misrepresented in a version of this article that appears in this week’s newspaper. We regret the errors and apologize to both Mr. Dinizio and our readers for the inaccuracies in our reporting.]

Southold Town Councilman Jim Dinizio later commented that Southold has preserved more than 5,000 acres of land by purchasing open space and another 3,000 acres through rezoning.

“We have preserved 5,000 acres of our land and we have another 5,000 acres to go and [then] there is no more land to preserve in Southold Town,” Mr. Dinizio said.

The councilman added that only 20 percent of the additional land could be built on.

A current proposal by Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) to allow the five East End towns to levy a .5 percent real estate transfer tax for the purpose of funding affordable housing was also discussed. That plan is in addition to the existing 2 percent transfer tax known as the Community Preservation Fund, which is used for open space purchases.

Mr. McCarthy said that while he believes it’s “great” that Southold Town has been able to preserve so much land, it hasn’t helped the housing crisis.

“It’s causing a problem on inventory and affordable housing,” he said. “Affordable housing should not be borne onto the purchaser who is coming into the community.”

Builder Paul Pawloski was also on the panel. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

And then there’s the issue of what jobs are available to East End residents.

Audience member Joe Corso of Cutchogue, who recently closed his small business after 25 years, said he was able to maintain a dedicated staff by keeping their pay rates high, but that’s not always the case here. He said he believes most of the jobs here are low-paying.

“[Mostly] you get them trained and then they leave for 50 cents more somewhere else,” he said.

Paul Romanelli of Suffolk Security, which sponsored the event along with Acadia Center, North Fork Chamber of Commerce and Riverhead Ford Lincoln/Riverhead Buick GMC, said his company struggles to keep employees beyond five years.

Panelist George Giannaris of Hellenic Snack Bar & Restaurant in East Marion echoed that sentiment.

“It used to be easy,” he said. “You hired college grads, and that was the end of it. Last year I had just two [local] people working. Finding employment out here is very difficult.”

Mr. Pawlowski said the employment problem cannot be resolved until potential employees find housing.

“Every business on the North Fork is struggling to find employees,” he said. “The number one reason is because employees have no place to live.”

Mr. Noncarrow said local government’s role in tackling affordable housing issues needs to be shaped by the will of the public. He suggested creating a separate committee on affordable housing that might include some of the people taking part in the panel discussion.

“I think our biggest role, really, is to research and to communicate with the folks in the community,” he said of the town. “To research all options that are available within affordable housing and see what the best possible options are and then put them out to the community to see their thoughts on them.”

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