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Structure for Island affordable housing in place

ILLUSTRATION GETTY IMAGE/iStock | For many here, housing has become impossible
ILLUSTRATION GETTY IMAGE/iStock | For many here, housing has become impossible

As co-chair with Hoot Sherman of the Shelter Island’s Community Housing Board, Mary-Faith Westervelt is a veteran of the housing wars.

She was already on the front lines when the Community Housing Law was passed by the Town Board in June 2008 and has seen it through several amendments over the years.

“We’ve tried many things,” Ms. Westervelt said. “The result is always the same.”

The attorney, a partner in the Center’s Westervelt & Rea firm, waved a petition — one of many filed by neighbors in areas where plans were floated for affordable rental apartments.

In August 2009, such a petition reached the Community Housing Board signed by residents in the area of St. Mary’s Road, where Sean and Ellen McClain proposed 20 rental units in a 25,000-square- oot building.

The petitioners — a number of St. Mary’s Road residents and others from around the Island including Supervisor Jim Dougherty and Councilman Paul Shepherd — said they feared the neighborhood would be changed in ways that would have a negative effect on their lives.

Mr. Shepherd wasn’t on the Town Board at the time, but Mr. Dougherty was supervisor.

“I was completely comfortable signing,” Mr. Dougherty said, pointing out that he wears two hats — that of supervisor and the other of a private citizen and taxpayer.

“I would do it again,” he said, pointing out that his signature was specific to what he considered a project too large for the site.

He would prefer to see affordable housing developed through rentals within existing properties that would be more in keeping with the ambiance of the Island, he added.

Mr. Shepherd said he doesn’t remember the details. But he might have had questions about precisely how the housing was going to be developed.

“Everybody wants something to happen here,” Mr. Shepherd said about providing workforce housing. At the same time, he said, Islanders tend to prefer that houses be owned, which, he said, is beyond the budgets of many people who work here.

Ms. Westervelt had another take. “NIMBYism,” she said simply.

People have all kinds of visions when it comes to affordable housing, she added. But the law that created the Community Housing Board was specifically written to facilitate housing for workers here.

Some of these people are often sons and daughters of Islanders who are educated here, leave for college or other training and are unable to return without moving back with their parents, Ms. Westervelt said. An affordable housing plan is meant to serve those who can’t yet afford to buy properties, but love the Island and want to be teachers, police officers and volunteers with the Fire Department or Emergency Medical Services, she added.

Apartments must meet code and renters must be either citizens or people legally allowed to work here, she said.

The Community Housing Law creates a “Community Housing Floating Zone,” not specifically mapped, but not within the Near Shore and Peninsula Overlay District, considered too fragile for intensive development.

It allows “more creative and imaginative” land use than is possible under the town’s zoning code.

Any developer of this kind of housing still has to consider “existing neighborhood development, fiscal responsibility, economic feasibility and environmental concerns,” under the law, she said.

The environmental concerns are especially important with multiple dwelling units in one structure, and in recent years, there has been more focus on the need for all housing to meet Suffolk County Department of Health Services standards dealing with water and septic systems.

Under a transfer of development rights, a landowner may be permitted to build in a location where development is prohibited, often for environmental reasons, and bank development rights for use in a location where development is encouraged.

The Island and Southold are in the same Suffolk County district for such considerations and the Island is allowed to take some of Southold’s sanitation credits to offset its needs here, Ms. Westervelt said.

But if the property is already over density, transferring such credits isn’t allowed and that was the case on the  Island, she said.

“We can’t force” people to accept such developments, only encourage them, Ms. Westervelt said.

What’s more, the Community Housing Board has only a small operating budget — just over $3,600, most of which is to pay the clerk of the committees.

There’s no money to offset construction costs to help owners of existing properties bring them up to code or provide rental assistance to those in need of housing.

That’s where Shelter Island Housing Options (SIHOP) comes in. It has been re-constituted after a long dormant period in which, members have said, several colleagues had given up hope that any affordable rentals might ever exist on the Island.

As a registered nonprofit organization, SIHOP can raise money and provide tax deductions to contributors. Ms. Westervelt said the Community Housing Boardis “there to facilitate. “SIHOP is the key,” she said.

SIHOP has “very creative ideas” and needs additional volunteers to help facilitate its work, she added. Her law partner, Kimberlea Rea, is working with Father Charles McCarron of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and Patrick Clifford to breathe life into SIHOP.

“I’m glad to see people talking about affordable housing,” Ms. Westervelt said. “I’d like to see them talking in a constructive way.”