Featured Story

When is a Shelter  Island house too big? Town Board discusses size matters

Efforts to pass two or more pieces of legislation to curb a proliferation of large houses on the Island can’t work.

That was the advice Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams got from Town Attorney Stephen Kiely at Tuesday’s work session.

Mr. Kiely advised the Town Board to push ahead with a single piece of legislation that was subject to a public hearing on Monday night, and then continue examining additions that could be companion legislation to the initial law. That way, the town can have a major piece of legislation on the books when the year-long moratorium on considering applications to build larger houses expires June 24.

The basic law, which was the subject of the public hearing Monday night, could be enacted May 6. It would transfer decisions on larger houses from the Town Board to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA).

Neighboring towns use their ZBAs to handle such decisions, Mr. Kiely said. Special permits issued by the Town Board, he added, are not as effective in limiting house sizes as ZBA decisions that must meet specific criteria.

Shelter Island’s Town Code limits structures on a lot to 5,999 square feet of living space.

The ZBA must weigh its decisions on specific criteria, including whether a proposal is appropriate for the character of the neighborhood; whether there are other means of granting what a property owner seeks; and whether the request for larger structures is excessive.

Based on public suggestions at Monday night’s hearing, some minor changes to clarify language and intent were made by Tuesday, Mr. Kiely said.

Among them was a question from resident Pam Demarest, who wanted assurance the change would include not simply a main house, but all structures constructed on a lot. The language in the original draft had not made that clear, and Mr. Kiely has adjusted it to meet Ms. Demarest’s concern.

Pending, but not yet subject to a public hearing, is a draft of a so-called “pyramid law,” which would limit the height of new construction. It’s meant to stop a new house from towering over surrounding neighbors’ properties.

Discussion has not yet moved it forward to a public hearing since Deputy Supervisor Meg Larsen introduced an alternative she maintains would better address the overall density of structures. Her idea has been what’s called “proportionality.” It would cause allowable structures to be judged by the size of the property they are meant to occupy.

In discussions of both ideas, many have liked this alternative, believing it would be more equitable to allow someone owning large properties to have larger structures as of right.

Councilman Benjamin Dyett at Tuesday’s work session said he liked both proposals and thought they could work in tandem with one another.

It would likely be June before a public hearing could be held on the pyramid draft and the proportionality idea hasn’t yet been drafted for consideration, meaning it could be later before it could be added, if the Town Board opted to propose it.

Still another idea surfaced at the work session Tuesday: Should there be a section in the Code to set a minimum size a house could be. Since that was an entirely new idea brought to the table, it will have to wait until all four Town Board members are available for further discussion.

At the public hearing Monday night, Kim Noland, president of the Shelter Island Association, which serves 10 neighborhood groups, said she likes the idea of transferring decisions on larger houses to the ZBA. She and her members want that enacted. But Ms. Noland questioned why the proposed legislation deals only with residential properties.

The law would impose significant restrictions on residential property owners, but fails to deal with commercial establishments that she said use more resources, especially water, than residences.

Residential owners pay 95% of town taxes, she said, and use less of scarce resources, so why should they be the only ones who are restricted? Commercial operations are often in residential areas where they represent a non-conforming use, and many have a greater impact on town resources than residents, Ms. Noland said.

At the work session, Ms. Brach-Williams didn’t dismiss the suggestion about looking at the impact of commercial property owners seeking expansions. But she recommended it be considered as a separate subject to be explored.

With Councilman Albert Dickson on vacation, the remaining members of the Town Board want his input and an opportunity for further discussion of the ideas on the table. The discussion will continue at Tuesday’s work session.