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Town Board hosts housing discussion: Drafting an affordable plan

The Town Board devoted its entire public work session Tuesday to working on the draft of the Community Housing Plan, a document that will guide the Town’s affordable housing endeavor. Members of the Community Housing Fund Advisory Board (CHFAB) attended the meeting.

CHFAB Chairwoman Elizabeth Hanley opened the meeting by saying its focus would be on deciding what to add to the draft plan and/or change what has already been drafted in light of the public’s input at the housing forum held Oct. 15, and suggestions from other sources.

Several issues were discussed, including the question of an added tax burden to homeowners if affordable housing is built on Town land; potential lawsuits arising from being subject to federal fair housing legislation; how to use available “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs, which are apartments in houses or other structures on a property; and how to create new ADUs.

Separate from the discussion was the referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot, Proposition 3, that, if passed, would bring funds to the Island to be used specifically for affordable housing through an additional 0.5% to the Community Preservation Fund.

That fund currently taxes first-time buyers 2% of the purchase price of property, which goes for open space preservation and water quality improvements. Supervisor Gerry Siller has said the Town will move forward with a housing plan regardless of funding from the transfer tax.

On Tuesday, Mr. Siller noted that, by Town Code, any affordable housing plan has to be updated every five years, and the Town will be moving to provide 10 units of housing. Michael Shatken, a member of the CHFAB, said they had zeroed in on two Town properties, at the sight of the old highway barn behind the History Center on South Ferry Road, and 69 North Ferry Road, which is being purchased by the Town from The Nature Conservancy. This property is north of Marcello Masonry.

Mr. Shatken said the North Ferry Road property could be the site for two dwelling units, and the South Ferry Road site could have eight units. He noted that the latter site includes wetlands and would have to go through some regulatory processes.

Islander Stephen Jacobs, who is an attorney, brought up the subject of potential legal action against the town in relation to how candidates are selected for housing. If preferences are given, for example, to Islanders who are living here now, racial discrimination charges might be brought under the federal statute that bans that practice.

Mr. Jacobs said he researched whether “preferences based on residency have passed muster in suits against municipalities,” and found no evidence of courts that “stayed or dismissed these suits … None upheld priority or preferences for residency.”

Mr. Jacobs added that a plan based on giving preferences to residency would expose the town to litigation that would be “at a minimum protracted and costly.”

Town Attorney Stephen Kiely responded by saying he had not done “exhaustive research,” and that there’s case law that residency preferences “are often on tenuous legal grounds.” But he said it depends on how “we do it, how we go about it.”

He added, ”It’s a long way of saying — not sure — but if we do it in a way that is supported by bona fide reasons why we have to, I think we can survive legal scrutiny.”

There was discussion about the idea that if affordable rental housing is built on Town-owned land, no property taxes will be paid, and Island homeowners would have to pay the renters’ share of taxes. Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams said that she had crunched numbers, and that a person owning a house worth $2 million would pay an additional $11 in taxes to subsidize 10 affordable rental units.

On another front, Councilwoman Meg Larsen addressed Islanders who urge the Board to wait before going ahead with an affordable housing plan until the committee crafting a new Comprehensive Plan finishes its work. Ms. Larsen said there already is a Comprehensive Plan, accepted by the Town in 1994, which explicitly calls for affordable housing to preserve the Island’s character.

As for accessory dwelling units used as affordable housing, CHFAB member Peter McCracken said the Town code has to be changed on ADUs, since it describes existing units and not ones the Town would build. Supervisor Siller said that resident Karen Kiaer’s research that there are more than 1,800 accessory units currently on the Island is “not true,” and that many in her count are “garages and sheds.”

Mr. Kiely said a “focus should be on funding ADU conversions,” and Ms. Hanley said all ADUs have to be “ecologically sound.”

Islander Bob Kohn repeated his disparagement of CHFAB’s plan, saying it was not a viable plan, and warned that accepting new taxes would give the Town Board “a blank check” to use or misuse the funds any way they wanted.

He also noted that if East Hampton and Southampton votes “Yes” to impose the transfer tax, and the Island votes “No,” then there would be affordable housing for Islanders just “a ferry ride away.”

Mr. Kohn and Mr. Siller then began arguing, speaking over one another and the discussion between them descended into insults and accusations.