Despite a final round of angry objections and impassioned pleas from Tuckahoe residents, the Southampton Town Board last week gave its unanimous approval to a proposal to build 28 below-market rental apartments at a site on Sandy Hollow Road.
The project, which could still be years in the offing, would be the first such multifamily municipally supported workforce housing project targeting middle-income residents in the town. Rents for the future apartments are projected to start at about $950 a month.
The town’s Housing Authority and the private development firm that had applied for the Planned Development District zoning designation to allow the apartment complex to be built at the site will now begin the process of applying for state low-income housing tax credits that they plan to tap to finance the project. Suffolk County also has pledged $800,000 in housing assistance grants to help cover the costs of the development.
Hanging over the approval, however, is irate neighbors’ threat of a legal challenge. Only moments after the approval on Thursday, June 12, some said they have already laid the groundwork for filing at least one lawsuit, and possibly two, challenging the approval, and could seek an injunction that would halt the efforts to apply for the tax credits.
One of the homeowners who lives immediately adjacent to the property targeted for the apartments, Oliver Bailly, said on Thursday that the residents have already arranged for an attorney to represent them, and they expect to file the legal challenge in short order.
Before the approving vote, residents once again lined up to bombard the Town Board members with criticisms of the project and the review process.
“Putting this project on this 2.6-acre site is like putting a square peg in a round hole,” said Marianne Klepacki.
The meeting took place under the watchful eye of two plainclothes Southampton Town Police officers, who at one point were asked by Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst to escort one angry resident from the room for refusing to conform to the public comment rules that the Town Board follows at public meetings. The woman, Southampton Village resident Frances Genovese, agreed to take her seat and was allowed to remain in the meeting. But she continued to direct barbs at board members.
“What you see here is a lack of confidence in your ability to make decisions. We have no confidence that you have done your homework,” she said, responding to board members’ defense of the project and pleas that they have considered a broad array of details about the project. “How do you justify this narrow interpretation of [the State Environmental Quality Review Act]? On their assessment form, what do they check about public opposition?”
Shortly before approving the project, the board voted to issue a declaration under state guidelines that the project did not have any significant impacts on the surrounding natural and civil environment, which includes whether there was substantial objection from residents.
The neighbors, who submitted 835 petitions, begged to differ.
“I believe you are going against what some of the people want,” said East Quogue Civic Association President Al Algieri, saying had his group been aware of the details of the project it might have sided with its Tuckahoe counterparts. “It’s very upsetting, I wish [the public hearing was still] open, because we would get 5,000 signatures.”
Board members said they saw their duty to the needs of the town as the overriding concern in approving the project, and said the project will have less impact on residents than what the property had originally been envisioned for when it was rezoned in 2009 to accommodate condos.
“I’d like to note that this day is a culmination of many, many, many hours of hearings and interaction with the public,” said Councilwoman Bridget Fleming, who had voiced her support for the project early on in the review process, nodding to the town’s long, fruitless efforts to create affordable housing for the town’s middle-income workers who were left out of the housing market by high property values. “It’s been since the 1970s that we set out to do this. It’s time to take action.”
Councilwoman Christine Scalera, who said she had struggled with her decision right up to the last minute, said she was swung in favor of the project by the fact that the Sandy Hollow parcel had been targeted for affordable development years ago.
The property, which would have been eligible to hold only a single house under its original zoning, was rezoned in 2009 through a similar PDD allowing the construction of the 16 two-bedroom condominiums, also with controls on the sale price to target middle-income workers.
“I understand the angst of the property owners in the immediate vicinity,” she said. “The overriding issue for me is that this property, since a prior Town Board rezoned it in 2009 to [an] affordable parcel … As it exists, that being 16 two-bedroom [condominiums] could yield upward of 64 occupants, which would allow for greater occupancy, more lot coverage, less water quality protections and more traffic than what is currently before us.”
The affirmative vote again rezoned the 2.6-acre property on Sandy Hollow Road as a Residential Planned Development District, rewriting the official zoning to specifically allow the development of 28 primarily studio and one-bedroom apartments for rent. There would also be two two-bedroom apartments in the complex.
That project drew little public criticism, though residents have noted that at the time town PDD rules did not require the same level of public notification of such plans as they do now. Nonetheless, most have said they would prefer the condo project and neighbors who owned their residences, rather than renters. The condos may have allowed for more potential tenants, but would have meant fewer toilets and fewer kitchens than the higher number of smaller apartments will, spurring fears of environmental impacts.
The project will be a joint partnership between the Southampton Town Housing Authority, a quasi-public not-for-profit that contracts with the town to oversee affordable housing development efforts, and private development company Georgica Green Ventures, which will construct and manage the apartments once they are built.
The apartments will be available only to middle-income tenants who meet specific earnings level requirements, both maximum and minimum, intended to make them accessible to municipal and service industry workers and middle-income professionals not ready or able to purchase housing. State guidelines dictate that rents be set for a certain percentage of apartments, possibly as many as half, at rates affordable to those earning less than 60 percent of the region’s median income—which would be about $65,000 now—with others being priced to suit those who earn more, up to 90 percent of median income.
“The exact rent structure will be backed into by the costs of the project, which will be reviewed very carefully by the state,” said Barbara Fair, a member of the Housing Authority board. “It’s not something that we can just pick a number and still qualify for the low income tax credits. The intention is for a mix of residents from different incomes.”
At least three of the apartments would be set aside for senior citizens. The applicants have said throughout the review process that the prospective tenants for the apartments are seen as nurses, civil servants and young professionals with steady, well-paying jobs who still cannot afford the region’s inflated house prices and have struggled to find quality, affordable rentals.
The apartments would be awarded by lottery to qualifying applicants, with preference given to those who serve as ambulance company and fire department first-responders, are already residents of the town, or are employees of local businesses.
Seemingly resigned to the realization that their continued objections were fruitless after Tuesday’s final public hearing on the project had clearly not swung any board members votes against it, residents nonetheless blasted board members for skirting some levels of review on technicalities, justifying the project with arguable details and having cut off the public discourse on the proposal. They accused board members of hastily pushing the project forward and dismissing the impact the project would have on its neighbors.
“The biggest elephant in this room is that when we have a project with a lot of opposition, there seems to be a dynamic between the people and the board, and it is adversarial,” said Tuckahoe resident Susan Van Olst. “There is not a feeling that we are working together as a community.”