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Community Housing Board calls for public forum

JULIE LANE PHOTO Community Housing Board Co-Chair Mary-Faith Westervelt hopes a community forum will provide a catalyst to the creation of sustainable year-round housing.

Community Housing Board Co-Chair Mary-Faith Westervelt hopes a community forum will provide a catalyst to the creation of sustainable year-round housing.

The Community Housing Board (CHB) is alive and well on Shelter Island and not looking to change the legislation meant to create opportunities for reasonably priced rentals.

“We’re not overhauling the law,” CHB Co-Chair Mary-Faith Westervelt said this week.

The board will reexamine the process used to identify “floating zones’ — areas where so-called affordable or community housing — could be established, Ms. Westervelt said.

The board will also revisit the town’s Comprehensive Plan, again, not with an eye for major changes, but to see if there’s a need for streamlining to help identify floating zones and clarifying methods of achieving goals.

Despite losing the initial effort to create a rental house on Route 114 at Hedges Road, Ms. Westervelt said she and CHB members aren’t discouraged in their effort. Rather, they’re redoubling their energies to determine exactly what the need is on the Island and how to link that with either existing rentals or newly created structures.

It’s true that the CHB hadn’t initially envisioned a builder stepping forward with a plan to construct affordable apartments. But when Janalyn Travis-Messer submitted her Hedges Road plan, the CHB did what it was supposed to do: It vetted the proposal to ensure it could meet rental standards established for Suffolk County by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and ensured the application was complete so the Town Board could review it.

Ultimately, the Town Board, faced with strong opposition from neighbors and their arguments that the proposal was too dense for the site, rejected the application.

Since then, members of the board are redoubling their efforts, arguing the town’s Comprehensive Plan necessitates providing “sustainable year-round housing,” Ms. Westervelt said.

On the hotly debated proposal for short-term rentals legislation before the Town board, Ms. Westervelt doesn’t see a direct competition with the market for affordable housing. She submitted a letter on behalf of the CHB to the Town Board for consideration at its recent public hearing on the subject. Without denigrating the town’s efforts to craft short-term housing regulations, Ms. Westervelt pointed out that in line with the Comprehensive Plan, the Town Board must focus on affordable year-round rentals.

The Comprehensive Plan “sets forth a basic goal to assure that a supply of affordable housing exists over time adequate to serve the diversity of the Island’s population,” she said in her letter.

The aim of the Community Housing Law, Ms. Westervelt said, is to “promote sustainable housing opportunities and to maintain the local economy, community services and the economic and social diversity that characterize the Town of Shelter Island.”

That means providing housing for teachers, librarians, police officers, fire and ambulance service volunteers and other professionals who work on the Island full time, the letter said.

“Rental housing is a critical component to achieving this,” Ms. Westervelt said.

The CHB’s next move is planning a community forum for Monday, March 27, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall to hear from the public — those who need reasonably priced rental housing and those who may have ideas for how to provide it. The CHB wants to hear from school officials, volunteer firefighters and ambulance service workers, police, ferry workers and employers about difficulties they may have staffing because of high priced housing.

The board wants input from parents whose children would like to return to live on the Island, but can’t afford to do so without moving back in them, and from workers who must commute from off Island to their jobs here because of a lack of rental units.

Right now, getting people to register for housing needs in a formal way is difficult because there’s little confidence it will be available, Ms. Westervelt said.

As for identifying town-owned land that could be developed, Ms. Westervelt isn’t sure where the money would come for construction. Block grants might pay a small part of the cost, but whether a private developer would be interested in creating apartment housing in a public-private partnership, and whether the town would have a site for a complex are questions that needs more research.

“I think at some point somebody will come up with something that’s going to work,” Ms. Westervelt said.

She’s hoping that a community discussion will be the impetus for new ideas for the future.