More than 130 residents of Remsenburg and Speonk attended a public forum last week to discuss a proposed workforce housing project in Speonk, most of whom seemed to come with their minds already set that the development would be a bad fit for their community.
Held last Wednesday, December 2, at the Remsenburg-Speonk Elementary School, the forum was intended to foster discussion between the developer, the Southampton Town Housing Authority—which is backing the project—and the community. But as the 90-minute meeting went on, it became apparent that most community members present were unhappy with the plan to rezone the property along the western side of North Phillips Avenue, commonly referred to as The Castle, so that 50 workforce housing apartments could be built on it.
News of a second potential project, one that would feature up to 44 three-bedroom apartments and would be located just up the road from The Castle, also on the west side of the road, also made the rounds at the meeting, prompting some to speculate that their small hamlet would soon be inundated with workforce housing developments.
“It’s our quality of life that you are invading,” Tim Dahlen Sr. of Speonk told Dave Gallo, president of the Jericho-based Georgica Green Ventures LLC, which is proposing the 50-unit apartment complex, and Curtis Highsmith, executive director of the Southampton Town Housing Authority. “We want to keep our nice, quaint little Mayberry.”
According to Mr. Gallo, Georgica Green Ventures—which is the same developer behind the Sandy Hollow Cove apartment complex in Tuckahoe, which was approved by the town, despite some opposition, in 2014—is now working on a proposal that would call for the construction of 50 workforce housing apartments in multiple buildings on the 4.4-acre lot at 41 North Phillips Avenue. An exact building count was not yet provided.
The land now features six separate buildings—five one-story houses and a two-story apartment building that houses 10 units—and is zoned both residential and village business, according to town records. The R-20 residence zoning allows for the single-family homes, while the village business zoning permits the apartments.
Therefore, the application now being pitched would require the Southampton Town Board to rezone the entire property as a planned development district, or PDD, an overlay designation that supersedes the existing zoning. Such approval requires the support of four of five Town Board members, a super-majority.
The second project, which would be sited just up the road on 7 acres owned by All Island Purchase Corp in Centereach, is even more preliminary right now, according to officials. Proposed by Southampton-based CAEC Engineering Design and Construction, that project calls for 44 apartments and would also require a change of zone, from R-40 residential to multifamily planned residential development, according to Denise McCauley, a business developer with the development firm. The project would not require a PDD, she said.
Unlike the land targeted by Georgica Green Ventures, which falls within the Remsenburg-Speonk School District, the lot owned by All Island Purchase Corp is actually in the neighboring Eastport South Manor School District, meaning that whatever kids move into that development would not attend Remsenburg-Speonk schools.
Regarding last week’s forum, Mr. Gallo said it was intended to start a conversation with the community about his company’s project. To that end, he provided each resident with a questionnaire that sought their opinion on what the proposed apartments should look like and how much Georgica Green Ventures should seek in rent for the mix of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments.
Throughout the evening, Mr. Gallo, along with Mr. Highsmith, repeatedly informed attendees that a formal application had not yet been filed, stressing that they are still soliciting feedback before making any decisions. That assurance did not do much to quell the shared concerns among those present regarding the potential impact they said that the development, if approved, could have on their elementary school, taxes, traffic and the overall character of their bucolic hamlet.
John Barry, a member of the Remsenburg-Speonk Board of Education who lives in Remsenburg, stressed that the type of development being proposed, with 50 apartments, would greatly impact the district. “The school is still a very small school,” he said. “We cannot absorb the number of students that would come from this type of development.”
A school impact study has not been completed yet; therefore, it is unknown how many students could potentially enter the school. The study is expected to be completed by January.
The lack of prepared studies prompted some to question the integrity of both the developer and the Housing Authority.
“How can you say that you care about our school district when, in fact, you’re just learning that this project might have an adverse effect on the school district?” said Christian Killoran, an attorney who lives in Remsenburg. “You look us straight in the face and tell us that you genuinely care for the community? That’s a tough one for us to buy.”
Mr. Highsmith explained that part of the process, when examining the feasibility of such developments—especially ones supported by the town and geared toward lower-income families—is to conduct a school impact survey. In fact, he continued, such an examination will be done by consultants Nelson and Pope of Melville and paid for by Georgica Green Ventures.
Mr. Gallo noted that his firm’s application, once it is ready to be filed at a date he would not disclose, would be subject to an extensive environmental review by the state. That study, he explained, would examine the potential impact on traffic, the environment and the district. The results of that study, he noted, should be available early next year, at which point Mr. Gallo said he would share its results with the community.
Other residents said the expected rise in cars and trips generated from the apartment complex could create a nightmare in terms of traffic. Mr. Dahlen said he moved from Merrick in the 1960s and settled in Speonk to escape the traffic that is epidemic in Nassau County.
“How are you going to take 50 units and get all of those people out of that street?” Mr. Dahlen asked Mr. Gallo, referring to North Phillips Avenue. “There’s going to be a traffic problem.”
Constant interruptions from the public demanding answers made it difficult for Mr. Highsmith and Mr. Gallo to get through their original presentation. At times, audience members asked those with questions to hold off with their comments until the end.
Beverly Rood of Remsenburg said she was disappointed that the presenters were constantly interrupted. Ms. Rood said she has not yet made up her mind regarding the apartments, explaining that she still needs more information.
Unlike most of those who spoke out against the project, Ms. Rood said she understands the need for affordable housing in the area. She explained that one of her friends lost her job a few years back and then left the workforce to care for her ailing mother. Once her friend returned to work, Ms. Rood explained, she could not find a job in her field and had to settle for a lower-paying one in retail.
Ms. Rood said her friend was forced to find housing elsewhere, away from her family and friends, because she simply cannot afford to live in Remsenburg or Speonk.
Mr. Highsmith stated that he firmly believes that workforce housing is needed in the community, pointing to how the next generation is not staying here due to the high cost of living and housing.
“If you have a child who graduates from school and leaves and comes back, they aren’t staying here,” Mr. Highsmith said. “He or she is moving somewhere else.”
Mr. Gallo said his company’s units are intended to cost between $900 and $1,500 per month, which he said is an affordable range for middle-income families. The plan currently calls for 10 studio units, 25 one-bedroom units and 15 two-bedroom units.
He also said that, if the project is approved, the apartments would become available only to those who meet certain qualifications. In addition to checking references, officials would review the credit and employment history, as well as criminal backgrounds, of potential renters. Also, those who violate the complex’s rules could be evicted.
Georgica Green Ventures has a number of other developments in the works across Long Island—including the Sandy Hollow Cove apartment complex in Tuckahoe that is currently tied up in litigation. That approved project, another PDD that has the support of the Housing Authority, calls for the construction of 28 apartments on 2.6 acres along Sandy Hollow Cove that would be rented to middle-income tenants.
When it was first proposed, neighbors repeatedly blasted the project, stating that it was too intense a use for the chosen property. They also made similar arguments that the apartments would create more traffic, negatively impact local schools and affect their quality of life. In 2014, several neighbors sued to prevent the construction of the complex; that litigation is ongoing.
At one point during last week’s forum, Mr. Gallo said his team would be willing to toss their plans in the garbage if the community can come up with a better proposal for the North Phillips Avenue property—so long as it also meets the town’s need to create more affordable housing. But most of those who responded, including Mr. Dahlen, said they would prefer if the developers abandon plans and build only what is now allowed under current zoning.