Affordable housing proposal criticized by East Hampton planners

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Members of the East Hampton Town Planning Board this week harshly criticized an affordable housing project proposed for a site off Oakview Highway. The board members made their comments after taking a first look at the application after it was recently revised; their discussion led to a debate on the future of affordable housing developments in the town and whether private entities will ever be able to make such a development viable.

Before a crowd of dozens of residents from the neighborhood surrounding the eight-acre parcel, where a developer has proposed building 60 apartments, Planning Board members on Wednesday night, November 19 blasted the application as too intense, too damaging to the residential neighborhoods around it and to the groundwater underneath it. They also said it would probably cost too much to be considered affordable.

“This creates a little suburban town,” board member Eileen Catalano said. “From my perspective, it looks like a complete change in the quality of the neighborhood.”

The application is the second version of a high-density development plan brought to the town by property owners Ronald Webb Sr. and Ronald “Budd” Webb Jr. It’s the first time a private developer has proposed an affordable housing project in East Hampton Town under special zoning rules. The first version called for 57 individual cottages but planners sent the Webbs back to the drawing board, asking them to reduce the development density and address concerns about groundwater pollution.

The new proposal increases the number of units to 60, but they are dispersed among 12 manor house-style buildings. It also calls for the construction of a sewage treatment plant on the property, to be paid for and maintained by the residents of the development—a point that planners worried would threaten the affordability of the units in the long term.

“I don’t think we’ve seen a great deal of progress made in terms of answering these same basic questions we had last time,” board member Peter Van Scoyoc said.

“Last go around, we requested less density, an explanation of the sewage treatment plant and more importantly an explanation of how this will remain affordable,” Ms. Catalano added. “You’ve returned to us with more density, a couple of sewage alternatives … and nowhere near enough explanation of how this could stay affordable.

“The homeowners association would be responsible for the sewage treatment and maintenance costs for that, and utility cost for that and a backup generator for that, in addition to regular maintenance fees for landscaping and administration costs,” she continued. “If a family is struggling to make ends meet in this town and you have that kind of escalating costs, I don’t know how that stays affordable.”

She noted that other high-density affordable housing projects have been situated along main arteries that could handle an influx of traffic, while the Webb’s proposal would use narrow residential streets as entry and exit points.

Other board members had similar doubts. Mr. Van Scoyoc said that he thinks the extent of development proposed on the property is too intense for a property that lies above the town’s critical groundwater supply and near Suffolk County Water authority drinking wells.

“We’re talking about huge amounts of pavement, huge amounts of building coverage and very little natural vegetation left on site,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “It’s an intensity of use on this property that is well beyond what good planning dictates. I certainly believe in affordable housing but this is so far beyond what I think should be acceptable on this particular site that I don’t know all these issues could be overcome at this level of density.”

But if the town wants to encourage private developers to build affordable housing, as the recent comprehensive plan has called for, it may have to allow much greater densities to bolster profit margins. The Webbs’ property was recommended for use as a high-density affordable housing development but there is still some debate among planners and the developers as to whether an official designation was ever made. If the property is deemed appropriate for an affordable housing overlay district—a special zoning designation allowing greater development densities to bring prices down—the Webbs’ proposal would meet town codes.

Planners commented that, if such densities as those proposed twice by the Webbs are what is necessary for private developers to find the profits needed to make tackling affordable housing worth their while, that kind of development may best be left to the town. East Hampton Town has developed more than 400 affordable housing units, including more than 100 single family homes, in the last 25 years. Another 26-house town-sponsored development is due to begin construction this winter and a 12-unit apartment complex is in the planning stages.

“What we’ve got to decide is do we want anyone to do private affordable housing or do we want it on the taxpayers’ backs,” John Lycke asked his fellow board members. “This proposal, as hideous as everyone finds it, did follow those criteria that we laid out for everyone in this town as affordable housing. Do you want the private sector in this community to build affordable housing for the community? Other than that, it will stay 100 percent taxpayer [funded] and public. That’s the crossroads we’re at.”

His counterparts were firmly on the side of protecting neighborhoods first and working in affordable housing, where it wouldn’t have the sort of impacts feared at the Webbs’ property. “If the private sector can’t build this for profit with less density then maybe the town is better off taking care of affordable housing,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “I don’t think we should sacrifice our environment and our neighborhoods. What we’re really trying to do is provide affordable housing without wrecking the town.”

Residents of the neighborhood have also aligned against the Webb proposal, arguing that their residential streets are unsuitable for the amount of traffic the 120-bedroom development would bring. They have noted that most of the town’s affordable developments have been within a mile of the Webb property.

“What we say is that in this area, enough is enough,” said Jim Lagarenne, who spoke on behalf of the neighborhood organization that has led the opposition to the Webbs’ proposal, the Freetown Neighborhood Advisory Committee. “We’re prepared to stop this project at all costs.”

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