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Russell, pitching code change to promote affordable rentals, cites county health department obstacles

Supervisor Scott Russell talks with North Fork Chamber of Commerce members Monday morning about affordable housing roadblocks in Southold Town. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Affordable housing topped the agenda today for Supervisor Scott Russell at his annual breakfast meeting with the North Fork Chamber of Commerce, where he took the opportunity to make a pitch for a zoning code change he first proposed a year ago that’s headed for a public hearing tomorrow night.

Last December, Russell proposed changing the zoning code to allow apartments as a principal use in commercial zones. Current code only allows apartments as an accessory use to a principal commercial use in the town’s commercial zoning use districts.

There had been a concern in the past about residential uses eclipsing commercial uses in commercial centers, Russell said last December, when he first pitched the idea to the town board at a work session. “But there’s lots of vacant commercial space,” Russell said.

His idea was to allow the construction of up to six “moderate income residential rental units” in existing structures located in commercially zoned areas.

Russell’s proposal was developed by the code committee and is scheduled for a public hearing tomorrow night at town hall. (The meeting starts at 7:30 p.m.)

The proposed code amendments would allow the conversion of existing space to up to six units of affordable rental housing in the Agricultural Conservation (A-C), Residential Low Density (R-40, R-80, R-120, R-200 and R-400), Residential Office (RO), Limited Business (LB), Hamlet Business (HB), General Business (GB) and Light Industry (LI) zoning use districts.

The uses would be special exception uses, requiring approval as such from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Tenants would be required to be on the town’s affordable housing registry to be eligible to rent the units. The rent would be set at or below the maximum allowable monthly rent for affordable housing units. And the units must be maintained as affordable for a minimum period of eight years from the date on which the special exception use is granted.

Homes like these in a commercial zoning use district on Main Road could be converted to up to six rental apartments by a special exception from the ZBA. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Russell told chamber members today that another code provision aimed at producing affordable rental units — a provision adopted in august 2016 that allows for a floating “overlay zone” where up to 12 affordable rental units could be built on one acre of land — had not yet resulted in any development applications. However, Russell said today, there are “four or five prospective applicants exploring this.”

A major hurdle for any new commercial construction proposal is wastewater treatment, Russell noted.

“It’s not easy. We don’t have the infrastructure — sewers — to support that,” he said.

The Suffolk County health department has begun approving advanced septic systems for single-family residential uses, Russell said. But the health department has not yet given the green light on the new systems for commercial use.

The health department has so far approved only three advanced treatment systems for single-family homes and has not approved “any system that’s commercial scale yet,” according to North Fork County Legislator Al Krupski. “Eight completely different systems are being piloted,” he said.

“I’ve asked the health department for at least two years whether there will be setback relief so people can achieve the density they already have under zoning,” Krupski said. “I haven’t gotten an answer other than that they should apply. I think they want to do it. They haven’t said no,” Krupski said, adding he would be happy to set up a pre-submission conference for any interested applicant.

If the advanced treatment systems don’t pose a threat to drinking water quality, setbacks from wells — both on the site to be developed and on neighboring sites — should be relaxed, Krupski reasoned. But the health department hasn’t committed to that premise and applicants may need to seek relief from the board of review. That increases both the expense and the uncertainty of the outcome.

When “everything is on a ‘pilot’ basis, it makes developing affordable rental apartments very difficult,” Russell said today.

“There’s a provision in the county code allowing the advanced treatment systems that says they cannot result in increased density,” Russell said. “But they haven’t defined ‘increased density’ yet. If the zoning code allows it, that’s not really increased density, in my mind,” Russell said.

Krupski agreed. But the health department doesn’t necessarily see it that way, he acknowledged. Unfortunately, he said, the answer won’t be known until someone makes an application.

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Denise Civiletti

Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.