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A wild night at Town hall: A packed house for an angry meeting on affordable housing

A raucous two-and-a-half-hour June 24 Community Housing Board meeting included accusations filling the air about misrepresentations, bad faith discussions, a call to have a member removed from serving by his colleague, and a town councilman challenging a Housing Board member to fight. The meeting had only two members due to resignations. The idea of a committee meeting with only two members was characterized before it started as everything from ridiculous to a chance to grandstand by one of the members.

A standing-room only crowd showed up and heard Housing Board member Bob Kohn make a case that Islanders don’t need affordable housing. He maintained that, if Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs a bill that has passed both the State Senate and Assembly, Islanders should vote “no” on implementing half of the proposed 1% transfer tax on property purchases that would help fund affordable housing.

Speaker after speaker rose to challenge his opinion, with Supervisor Gerry Siller and Councilman Jim Colligan each accusing Mr. Kohn of misrepresenting his views on affordable housing when he interviewed for an appointment. Mr. Kohn told Mr. Siller to sit down when the supervisor charged him with false representation. “You can’t do that,” said Christopher DiOrio, the other CHB member, addressing Mr. Kohn.

In a heated exchange, in which Mr. Kohn asked Mr. Colligan if he was giving a political speech, the councilman said, “Don’t tell me when I can finish or you and I will go outside and finish.”

Mr. Kohn said he took that as a threat.

Mr. Colligan said Shelter Island would become a place only for the wealthy who want to live in gated communities instead of a mixed community of people of different ages, economic status and ethnicity. When Mr. Colligan spoke about the importance of families with children who want to live on the Island, Mr. Kohn said closing the school might be a good idea.

Several speakers, including Mr. Siller, challenged Mr. Kohn on why he wanted to serve on the Housing Board. One speaker read him the code that applies to membership, challenging Mr. Kohn to explain what in his background qualified him to serve. Mr. Kohn insisted there’s a need for diverse opinions in town government that is discouraged by the Town Board.

Mr. Siller was one of many who challenged Mr. Kohn’s definition of community, telling him that people with shared goals who support one another are important on the Island. The supervisor talked about the two sites for affordable housing that are being explored — one for sale houses and the other for rentals — adding that he’s working with people interested in affordable housing that could provide housing for teachers, police officers, firefighters, EMTs, landscapers and others who serve the community.

The town would own the land, but individuals who qualified to buy houses that could cost about $200,000 would own them and they would be kept perpetually affordable.

John Woodward, who identified himself as a friend of Mr. Kohn, said the town is dying and the only way to revitalize it would be to take over the Mashomack Preserve and build affordables there. The preserved property represents about one-third of the Island.

Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams told Mr. Kohn it wasn’t just elderly or entry level workers who need housing. Noting that she’s divorced, she said she almost had to give up her post on the Town Board and move from the Island because she had difficulty finding a place to live.

In his presentation, Mr. Kohn referred to affordables as “socialized housing” and said few on the Island want their tax money used to help other people buy or rent houses they can’t afford. Those who can’t afford to live on the Island should go elsewhere.

That elicited a chorus of people telling him he should go elsewhere.

“Poverty has been nearly eliminated on the Island,” according to a slide presentation by Mr. Kohn. He insisted affordable housing has never worked anywhere and that the other four East End towns can create housing that can accommodate Island workers. People told him he needs to see the housing in the other communities that are attractive and help stop the trade parade of workers, some of whom have had to travel a long distance to work.

Mr. Kohn referred to high density housing, saying affordables would adversely affect the Island’s fragile aquifer. He introduced a resolution that the Housing Board should recommend that the Town Board urge resident to cast a “no” vote on any town referendum that, he said, would “increase taxes for public housing or subsidized housing.”

Mr. DiOrio said he wouldn’t support that resolution. Speaking directly to Mr. Kohn, he said, “It is really, really awful that you are doing this. I don’t understand why you’re here.”

Mr. DiOrio told the Town Board members they must remove Mr. Kohn from the Housing Board.

Based on a survey of more than 1,000 respondents put out by the Comprehensive Plan group, Mr. Kohn said water is the primary concern residents have and affordable housing is near the bottom of the list.

Meg Larsen, a member of the Community Plan Advisory Board (CPAC) — it’s on hold due to resignations — and Republican candidate for Town Council in November, told Mr. Kohn that when the survey results were received, it was clear that many segments of the community were not represented. Only one was a member of the Hispanic community, for example. Most of the responses were from homeowners, so when they responded, affordables were not important to them. It’s exactly why CPAC members began reaching out to a wider group of people on the Island to determine real needs in the town, Ms. Larsen said,

As for Mr. Kohn’s insistence that affordable housing would represent a threat to the town’s water supply, she said every existing house on the Island that lacks an upgraded septic system is a greater threat. She and her family are installers of septic systems.

Peter Vielbig added that it’s not affordables that are the threat to water since those units will have upgraded septics. Instead, it’s the use of fertilizers, aged septic systems, residents with pools who top them off with their well water and those with large lawns they water regularly. The affordables won’t have such lawns, he said.

Resident Maria Maggenti said when she came to the Island it was because it was a community where people cared about one another and most houses were affordable.

“I don’t mind paying more taxes,” she said, as long as people have a safe place to live and systems are “fair and equitable.”

Kelci McIntosh, Mr. DiOrio’s partner, told people she dreams of being able to buy a house, but prices continue to escalate and it has become increasingly difficult to consider a house at current prices. She talked about her volunteer work on the Island and said, “People can’t afford to live here.”

Phil DiOrio told Mr. Kohn he is “the most smug man I have ever met. You just roll grenades into the room and see what happens.” Taxes would rise if the town has to hire professional firefighters and EMTs, he said.

“Locals are being driven out,” said Sherri Cavasini, noting that her ancestors were hareleggers born on the Island. People can’t even find rentals, she added.

“The discussion tonight is about the heart and soul of the Island,” architect Michael Shatken said. He has been volunteering time with the Housing Board to outline the type of dwellings that could be constructed as affordable.

Gordon Gooding, speaking not in his role as chairman of the Community Preservation Fund, but as an individual homeowner, said the issue is “tearing our community apart.” The argumentative tone of the evening is not the way to discuss a serious issue, he added. “I don’t want to be part of this,” he said. “I believe we’re better than this.”