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Community housing a dead issue for Island? Post-mortems on an affordable proposal

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.

The developer who proposed a community housing project on a 0.31-acre lot in the Center that didn’t pass muster with the Town Board last month, believes no affordable housing proposal will ever be endorsed.

“They will not support it — period,” Janalyn Travis-Messer told the Reporter, referring to any community housing — often called workforce or affordable housing — initiative that reaches the Town Board for approval. In creating the Community Housing Board (CHB) eight years ago, the Town Board just wanted to do something that would sound “warm and fuzzy,” but never intended to allow a project to be developed, she said. “NIMBYism lives.”

Councilman Paul Shepherd, in an interview, agreed with Travis-Messer that no matter where community housing might be proposed, it would run into opposition that would block approval.

“We shouldn’t be steering people down that path” if it’s never going to be allowed to happen, Mr. Shepherd said. At the same time, he suggested there might be changes to the resolution that created the CHB, giving developers a better chance to build.

In 2008, following a contentious public hearing, the Town Board established a “Community Housing Floating Zone” meant to be a working plan for affordable housing. The legislation opened the door to “creative and imaginative” land use, according to the resolution that became part of the town’s zoning code.

The aim was to allow a property owner to rent units even if the owner didn’t live on site, and to maintain those units at affordable rental rates as determined by a scale maintained in the Town Clerk’s office.

The ordinance remains on the books and provides two routes to affordable housing:
• A special license to install apartments within the footprint of an existing house
• A floating zone, allowing construction of a development of higher density than usually allowed under the zoning code, providing that housing is for affordable units.

Despite the passage of the legislation, it wasn’t until 2011 that the first two applicants filed for and received approval from the CHB for their plans. Since then, until Ms. Travis-Messer’s proposal, there’s been silence on the affordable housing front.

Ms. Travis-Messer, who operates Griffing & Collins Real Estate, in conjunction with DJTM Enterprises, had “checked every box” in the application process, Mr. Shepherd said, for an attached, two-unit, prefabricated structure at the corner of North Ferry and Hedges roads.

One unit would have had three bedrooms, while the other would have one bedroom and both would have kitchen facilities. According to Ms. Travis-Messer, the larger unit might be occupied by a family with two adults and, perhaps, two children. The other unit might have been be rented to a single person or a couple.

But because of the number of bedrooms, there was speculation by several neighbors that as many as nine unrelated adults might occupy the structure and as many as nine vehicles would be parked on the property. A group of neighbors hired an attorney to protest the application to the Planning Board, which unanimously found the density was too much for the small lot, and the Town Board agreed.

Rumors of the number of people and vehicles at the site killed the project, Ms. Travis-Messer said. “I’m most disappointed in Chris,” she added, referring to Councilwoman Chris Lewis, who is the Town Board’s liaison to the CHB.

During the discussion of the project, Ms. Lewis had said when the CHB was created, she hadn’t imagined a developer would propose building a new structure, but that people with homes that could accommodate accessory apartments might provide scattered housing as rentals.

“I was enthusiastic about her project when I first saw it,” Ms. Lewis said.

But the Planning Board, which she said is generally “fair minded, came down quite hard on this” and its report prompted the councilwoman to change her opinion.

“It was a difficult decision,” Ms. Lewis said. She disagrees with Mr. Shepherd about the future of community housing on the Island, saying that eventually there will be a project the Town Board will approve.

Supervisor Jim Dougherty also pointed to the Planning Board’s report, noting, “I was swayed in part by the Planning Board recommendation,” calling it “thoughtful and balanced.” The planners have no “axes to grind” and usually their opinions are solid, he added.

“We may want to take a look at the law we passed in 2008 to see if there are ways to improve [it],” Mr. Dougherty said. “My recollection is we hoped to stimulate use of existing housing mostly to help out deserving folks and had not thought much about new construction. We should keep an open mind on that path.”

Councilman Jim Colligan was also convinced by the Planning Board decision. “Providing community housing has been and continues to be an important issue here,” Mr. Colligan said. “As a Town Board, we need to strive for a healthy, balanced community that meets the needs of all of the people.”

But he added that the idea of a two-family house on a lot that is less than a third of an acre was “too ambitious.” He worried that the worst scenario — one Ms. Travis-Messer denied had any likelihood of happening — of nine unrelated individuals with nine vehicles would have a negative impact on surrounding property values.

“This application produced overwhelming resistance from its nearby community,” Mr. Colligan said. “If we are to be successful in providing affordable community housing, we need to be prudent in our consideration.”
Councilwoman Mary Dudley mentioned the town’s comprehensive plan; she was struck by its call for maintaining the harmony of a neighborhood.

During the discussion of the project, Mr. Colligan had appealed to Ms. Travis-Messer to try to find a compromise with neighbors. But she subsequently said that while she might have been willing to stipulate who could rent the premises, she was restricted from doing so because there are 14 federal, state and county regulations that prohibited her from doing so.

Mr. Dougherty told residents near hedges and North Ferry roads that he would pass on their suggestion that the Community Preservation Fund Advisory Board consider purchasing the lot to preserve it as a wooded area.

Ms. Travis-Messer said she has not yet heard from anyone on the advisory board, but she has been in discussions with others about the future of the site. One idea is to sell the lot, but she declined to discuss who might buy it and it was unethical to discuss price. She had previously offered it to neighbors for a reported $500,000 before the idea of creating the community housing project.

If a deal isn’t in the works quickly, Ms. Travis-Messer confirmed she could clear the lot and have a four-bedroom house built there that would be a rental unit.

Since she wouldn’t be offering it through the CHB, she wouldn’t be limited in terms of the amount of rent she could charge and wouldn’t need Town Board approval. She would need a building permit and, depending on what she might propose, could need Zoning Board of Appeals approval if the structure required any variances from the Town Code.

In April, after the project at North Ferry and Hedges roads was proposed, Mary-Faith Westervelt, co-chair of the CHB, noted how quickly opposition develops to any proposal for affordable housing, whether it’s houses for purchase or rent. “We’ve tried many things — the result is always the same,” Ms. Westervelt said.