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Is Comprehensive Plan part of a path to affordable housing?


Pushing back at Councilman Paul Shepherd’s announced plan to resist revisiting the town’s Comprehensive Plan, members of the Community Housing Board (CHB) meeting January 25 said they want a rewrite of sections dealing with affordable housing.

Mr. Shepherd announced his resistance by saying he thinks Islanders don’t want their lives planned. But with support from two of Mr. Shepherd’s colleagues — Councilmen Jim Colligan and Albert Dickson — Housing Chairwoman Mary-Faith Westervelt called for revising the Comprehensive Plan.

Mr. Colligan described the plan as “a shared vision” that needs to be updated more than every 30 years to keep pace with Islanders’ needs. It was written in 1994 and 10 years ago, there was a seven-month effort to update it, but the Town Board rejected suggested changes.

Many factors that attract people to Shelter Island are lost if the town fails to stay ahead of the need for changes, CHB member Mike Bebon said.

“What do we want to become?” is the key question that needs to be addressed, Mr. Bebon said, noting that he was “thrilled” when he read of the Town Board’s interest in discussing an update to the existing Comprehensive Plan.

The plan deals with policy on such issues as housing, land use, development and transportation, which are all areas that hinge on the future success of developing affordable housing, the group agreed.

More Is more
The committee is temporarily hampered by less than full membership, with only three members at Thursday’s meeting — Ms. Westervelt, Mr. Bebon and David Doyle. But by the next meeting, it’s expected that the committee will have seven members, not the five that have been serving.

The aim is to add people who can bring expertise to the committee that is currently lacking.

Recommendations for new appointments by Ms. Westervelt are expected to be confirmed, according to Mr. Colligan. The restructured committee will be “more viable and dynamic,” he said.

Among the needs is public relations work to make Islanders familiar with the people who are in need of housing, she said.

Giving an example, Ms. Westervelt spoke of an Island educator who has had five different rental units over a 12-year period, and faces the need for another as of May 1. One unit she lost because a landlord died and the property was sold. Others were lost due to similar reasons. Presently, after six months of searching, the teacher has yet to find anything affordable here. If she has to move off-Island, she will have to transfer her child out of the Shelter Island School District.

There are many people working on the Island, but commuting from the North and South fork venues, including going as far west as Riverhead and some beyond that distance, Ms. Westervelt said.

She has contacted seniors on the Island with the idea that some might welcome the chance to bring in a young tenant who could help care for property while allowing the senior to remain in his or her own home and have an extra source of income. But none of the seniors expressed interest in taking on a tenant.

The Vitality of Youth
Bringing young families in means a larger school population, Ms. Westervelt said.

“We’re crumbling,” Mr. Colligan said, concerned that the town could lose its school to consolidation, requiring busing students to other schools.

“You lose the integrity of the town,” he added, speaking about the need to bring more young families to the Island. And young people are at the heart of the community, bringing concerts, plays and sports to the Island that would be lost if the school had to close.

There has been talk on the Island about closing the school, and there is a push from the state to consolidate small districts. There have been past conversations among Board of Education members about trying to woo back students who live on the Island but attend school elsewhere.

In addition, the need for young people who can live and work on the Island is vital to maintaining a volunteer Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services, Ms. Westervelt said.

That raises the need for more Island-based jobs, some of which could be entrepreneurial, Mr. Bebon said.

The need to involve town businesses in the effort to create affordable housing through the Chamber of Commerce is something Mr. Colligan would like to see happen. One business is already thinking ahead on the issue, he said, noting that Gardiner’s Bay Country Club is contemplating building housing on its property for its part-time staff who have difficulty finding reasonably priced places during the spring, summer and fall seasons.

Money, Money
The CHB has a tiny budget, so it looks to Shelter Island Housing Options (SIHOP), a 501(c)3, established to raise money and provide tax deductions to contributors. It’s hoped that adding membership to that group can increase the chances of attracting more donors.

The town’s Grants Committee is also exploring possible sources of money that could be put to work easing some of the barriers that currently block affordable housing, Ms. Westervelt said.

Among those barriers are finding money needed to assist landlords who wish to provide housing, but lack the money to bring their houses into compliance with local, county and state regulations. Also, the cost of purchasing land or structures for use as affordable units is steep.

Another hurdle is complying with Suffolk County regulations affecting affordables, including helping to pay for upgraded septic systems.

Sporting a button that read East End YIMBY for “Yes in my backyard,” North Haven-based real estate professional Michael Daly said the county regulations can be difficult to navigate. Mr. Bebon agreed, pointing out that while the county is sympathetic to the need for affordable housing, it won’t change its regulations to accommodate that need.

A Supportive Government
Also in the mix is the NYMBYism that has accompanied every affordable housing proposal that’s been considered and there’s much work to be accomplished.

One element has been removed, Mr. Colligan said: There is now the political will that has been missing from the previous Town Board.

“This is a big issue. We’ve waited a long time,” he said. While the government hasn’t taken the lead in the past, the current board is committed, viewing affordable housing as one of the critical needs the town has, the councilman said.

Listening to the conversation, Mr. Daly said it was similar to those being held in all East End towns and villages.

That prompted Mr. Colligan to suggest that just as representatives from municipalities share information on problems with ticks, water quality and other issues, they should meet a few times a year to discuss the housing problem.

The CHB meets again February 22 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall. All are welcome.