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Putting it all in proportion: Board discusses restricting the size of houses

COURTESY PHOTO |  The Town Board at Tuesday’s work session discussed methods to limit the size of houses.

The Town Board at Tuesday’s work session discussed methods to limit the size of houses.

At Tuesday’s Town Board work session, Councilwoman Chris Lewis noted that you can’t be in the post office for very long these days without “someone telling you how Shelter Island is changing before their eyes. We’re just trying to put a few brakes on.”

She was speaking of a subcommittee made up of herself, Town Attorney Laury Dowd and Councilmen Paul Shepherd and Peter Reich who have been tasked to come up with plans to reduce the sizes of new houses on the Island.

The idea is called “proportionality,” or amending local laws to restrict the amount of square foot living space — heated areas of houses — on lots of various sizes.

Also included in the subcommittee’s proposal is a so-called “fragile zone ” on top of the present “Near Shore overlay zone” to achieve goals of plentiful and fresh water.

Proportionality would be achieved, the proposed law states, by restricting new construction and reconstruction using a formula created by Mr. Shepherd. The formula requires that square footage of living areas may not exceed 10 percent of the first acre — not including wetland setbacks — 7.5 percent of the second acre and decreasing by 25 percent for each subsequent acre.

Since an acre is 43,650 square feet, 10 percent of living space allowed would be a house of 4,360 square feet of heated areas. A three-acre lot would be restricted to a house of 9,472 square feet.

The proposed  “fragile zone” would include Silver Beach, Menantic Peninsula, Tarkettle Peninsula, Shorewood, both Ram Island causeways and Little Ram Island. The new zone would have a host of regulations on water usage, including the requirement for pressurized water tanks and cisterns.

Emory Breiner, Planning Board member and Republican candidate for the Town Board, asked where homeowners would seek relief from the proposed restrictions on house size. When Ms. Dowd said the Board of Zoning appeals would be the place, Mr. Breiner responded that the ZBA would be “swamped.”

Mr. Breiner also commented on the list of restrictions that would be imposed on property owners in the fragile zone, noting that they ”probably don’t have any idea what we’re talking about. If they read the restrictions they would fill up this room.”

“I’m hopeful that they will,” Mr. Shepherd said.

He and Ms. Lewis said that it was members of the public who were partly driving the issue by attending board meetings and protesting the construction or reconstruction of large houses that put a strain on water resources and were out of character with the Island.

Former Supervisor Alfred Kilb questioned restricting house sizes, saying it was wrong “to take away the flexibility of people to use their land.” He added “diversity is created within the community by allowing people to use their land within the code.”

Mr. Kilb also questioned the fragile zone restrictions, saying that some of them were in opposition to recent water studies conducted by the town.

Police Chief Jim Read, speaking as private citizen, made the point that the board had exercised “a lot of control” over proposed large construction in the recent past by imposing restrictions before granting special exemptions from the town code.

“The tools are already there,” Chief Read said. “I don’t get it.”

Mr. Reich responded that granting special exemptions “are very arbitrary ” and board members “are going by the gut, there’s nothing on paper, we’re making it up as we go along.” He added that special exemption decisions can be challenged in court because there are no written guidelines.

Everyone on the board spoke on the issue, except Supervisor Jim Dougherty. It was agreed to take the drat amendments to the ZBA and the Planning Board for their comments and the board would revisit the proposals in two weeks.

In other business: Chief Read, in his role as emergency management coordinator for the town, said funds left over from a previous grant will be used to replace a more than 30- year -old electrical generator at the town’s Medical Center. The cost to the town will be $9,000 with federal funds paying the balance of $27,000.

The board has received three responses to its request for proposals to hire a grant writer. Interviews with all three are scheduled.

Martha Tuthill, the Shelter Island’s Schools guidance counselor, went before the board to inform them of two senior boys who are looking for internships with town departments. The board is taking it under consideration.