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A matter of proportion: Board debates regulating house size, drops ‘fragile zone’

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO The Town Board in work session Tuesday. From left, Councilman Paul shepherd, Supervisor Jim Dougherty, Councilman Jim Colligan and Councilwoman Mary Dudley. Not shown, Councilwoman Chris Lewis.
AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | The Town Board in work session Tuesday. From left, Councilman Paul shepherd, Supervisor Jim Dougherty, Councilman Jim Colligan and Councilwoman Mary Dudley. Not shown, Councilwoman Chris Lewis.

At its work session on Tuesday the Town Board once again turned to the question of regulating the size of houses on Shelter Island.

The discussion ranged from protecting the Island from so-called “Hampton-ization” to the effect regulation would have on tax revenues to the environmental consequences of allowing large residences to continue to be built on the Island.

Councilwoman Chris Lewis noted that she is asked by residents on a regular basis “how long are you people going to let this go before you put a stop to these McMansions?”

Later in the meeting, she also acknowledged that those who wanted Shelter Island to remain the same “are tilting at windmills.”
The topic has been dubbed “proportionality,” or coming up with workable constraints on the size of new construction. The town code is silent on the issue, except that if a project is 6,000-square feet or more the owner needs a permit from the Town Board.

Proportionality could be achieved, a draft for a proposed law stated, by restricting new construction and reconstruction using a formula created by Councilman Paul 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 43,560 square feet, 10 percent of living space allowed would be a house of 4,356 square feet of heated areas. A two-acre lot would be restricted to a house of 7,405 square feet.

One aspect of the issue was resolved Tuesday, when the proposal of a “fragile zone” was dismissed. The idea was to place the new zone on top of the present “Near Shore overlay zone,” and would have had a host of regulations on water usage, including the requirement for pressurized water tanks and cisterns to achieve goals of plentiful and fresh water.

Several town committees, asked to weigh in on the fragile zone proposal, came back with negative responses, and the board Tuesday agreed it would be unworkable.

Planning Board member Emory Breiner made the point that restricting the size of houses, especially in waterfront areas, would “devastate” tax revenues.

“You never do this from an economic standpoint,” Mr. Breiner said. “You have no other place to get money from.”
Councilman Jim Colligan took issue with the idea that every aspect of the building code should be driven by economic concerns.

“I don’t think decisions should be made here strictly by tax rolls,” Mr. Colligan said.

Mr. Breiner also said that the board was creating solutions where there were no problems. He noted that, on average, only one application a year came to the board’s attention seeking permission to build a house over the 6,000 square foot limit.

“I can’t figure out what’s bothering you,” Mr. Breiner said.

“The people who elected us are saying why do you keep letting things happen to change the way the Island looks,” Councilwoman Chris Lewis answered.

Greg Toner, a member of the Water Advisory Committee, agreed with Mr. Breiner about staying with the status quo if there were few applicants to build above 6,000 square feet. But he disagreed with Mr. Breiner that large houses don’t adversely affect the aquifer.

Mr. Breiner had said that 99.4 percent of water used by residences goes back to the aquifer, but Mr. Toner pointed out that not only water returns to the ground once its been used in a residence.

The board agreed to continue the discussion at a future date.

In other business: The board was in agreement to sign a contract with Cisco WebEx, a California-based company that produces hardware and software for video conferencing. The cost to install the system for use by town committees is $2,645 for the hardware plus a three-year subscription of $3,240, according to Town Attorney Laury Dowd.

Contractor Chris Fokine answered questions from the board about the proposed building project at the Shelter Island Historical Society’s Havens House headquarters. Mr. Fokine answered questions about construction techniques, wetlands preservation and parking at the extensive project that would take about 10 months, he said.