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No sale — neighbors react to affordable housing plan

ILLUSTRATION GETTY IMAGE/iStock | Affordable housing is back in the news on Shelter Island.
ILLUSTRATION GETTY IMAGE/iStock | Affordable housing is back in the news on Shelter Island.

“We’ve tried many things — the result is always the same.”

The speaker was Mary-Faith Westervelt, co-chair of Shelter Island’s Community Housing Board (CHB) noting how quickly opposition develops to any proposal for affordable housing, whether it’s houses for purchase or rent.

That’s the case with an idea floated by real estate broker Janalyn Travis-Messer, who last month brought a proposal to the CHB for a three-bedroom rental with an attached one-bedroom rental.

The location wasn’t revealed, except to say it was intended to go on a “marginal” lot that wouldn’t be considered by those seeking ideal, upscale housing locations.

But within hours of an April 7 Reporter story (“Broker floats affordable rental project”), Greg Cranford sent an email to Supervisor Jim Dougherty objecting to the proposal, identifying the site as being at North Ferry and Hedges roads, which is across the road from his property.

“To say it is self-serving on [Ms. Travis-Messer’s] part is an understatement,” Mr. Cranford wrote in his email. “It would also be an inappropriate re-zoning of our neighborhood, This needs to stop immediately.”

He asked Mr. Dougherty how to stop the plan “short of filing an injunction or a lawsuit.”

Mr. Cranford copied neighbors Seth Madore and Hannah Dinkel on his email, noting they are adjacent property owners. In a subsequent telephone interview, he named Ellen Clark as another neighbor who objected to the proposal.

Mr. Dougherty replied that the proposal hasn’t been brought to the Town Board except for a brief report from Deputy Supervisor Chris Lewis who had attended the March CHB meeting.

“We are following this closely, but haven’t seen anything to date,” Mr. Dougherty said. He suggested Mr. Cranford speak to Ms. Westervelt.

In an email to Ms. Westervelt, Mr. Cranford wrote that he would “vigorously oppose” the proposal to place the house on the small lot “by whatever means are at my disposal.”

While he said he appreciated the need to review proposals for rental apartments attached to a main house, he doesn’t think the town “should encourage multi-tenanted pre-fab rentals as a solution.”

The CHB considers every proposal it receives, Ms. Westervelt replied. She explained that the proposal for rental housing in a floating zone was in “pre-application submission” and described the process by which it would be assessed.

Chapter 51 of the town zoning code provides for such a pre-application submission that could be followed by a formal submission to the Town Board, referral to the Planning Board and a public hearing.

The various steps involved would “provide ample opportunity for the public to learn the facts about the proposal and voice their opinions,” Ms. Westervelt wrote.

Interviews with neighbors whose properties are along North Ferry Road or Hedges Road are unanimous in their objections to the site for the project, according to Seth Madore.

He was the only one the Reporter reached who said he objects to the entire concept of affordable housing, noting he left the Island to go to college and saved until he could afford to return to buy a house.

Affordable housing is a “social agenda” of a few, Mr. Madore said.

But his objections include the selection of the particular site he and others characterized as less than one-third of an acre on which the house and parking would occupy.

Mr. Cranford referred to “denuding” the property — taking down all trees to accommodate the development.
At the same time, he described the CHB’s ability to create floating zones for affordables as “spot zoning,” or placing a small plot in a different zone from that of adjacent properties.

“You can’t have a group of four people changing the neighborhood,” Mr. Cranford added.

He’s not opposed to rental units on the Island, but does oppose duplex rental units that are not owner-occupied.

Ms. Travis-Messer’s motivations were questioned by the neighbors. “This isn’t some altruistic proposal” on her part, Mr. Cranford said. Mr. Madore agreed, noting that the real estate broker was trying to turn a healthy profit on a small lot.

Ms. Travis-Messer said she’s abiding by the town code that allows up to 30 percent of a lot to be covered by an impervious surface. The proposed house and parking would meet that requirement, she said.

“It’s year-round housing,” Ms. Travis-Messer said, adding that houses along Hedges Road are of similar size.

“I’m not sure where the term affordable came in,” the broker said, noting that the Community Housing Board is charged with trying to provide housing needed by the community.

The lot had been priced around $360,000 more than a year ago, Ms. Travis-Messer said, but has been improved and is currently priced at $500,000. She’s not actively marketing it since she’s proposing it for this development, she added.

“I’m not looking to gouge and I’m not looking to give it away,” Ms. Travis-Messer said. “Everything’s been above board. Nothing’s been hidden.”

For neighbor Ellen Clark, it’s not about affordable housing, but that the lot in question is too small to accommodate the development. If it was for a single unit, Ms. Clark said she would have no objections.

She fears that to make the rent payments, many people would have to be “packed into one house” and the space that should be devoted to trees would be taken up by parking spaces.

Neighbor Hannah Dinkel voiced similar objections. Without a landlord living on the property, there would be no one to ensure it was well maintained and not overcrowded. Ms. Dinkel predicted it could have as many as eight renters — six people in the three-bedroom structure and two in the attached single-bedroom space.

With rent as high as $4,000 a month, as Ms. Travis-Messer has mentioned, no young couple just starting out is going to be able to afford such a cost, Ms. Dinkel said.

“I have always been an advocate for young people on this Island,” she said.