The vision of a joint partnership between the Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust and East Hampton Town, to boost the yield of an affordable housing development planned off Route 114, was given new life this week after housing trust officials pleaded with the town to include their property in a zoning overlay district it is putting on its land to allow apartment-style housing.
East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said this week that he will propose the town add the housing trust’s property to a special “affordable housing overlay” district the town intends to put in place on 8.5 acres of adjacent land and work to develop the two properties in conjunction to maximize the number of residential units that can be built on the land.
The town has already introduced the overlay district and scheduled it for a public hearing later this month — without including the housing trust’s property — but a noticing error means the hearing will have to be rescheduled and Van Scoyoc said on Tuesday that he expects the board to hold a new discussion of the overlay proposal to examine the inclusion of the housing trust property before rescheduling the hearing.
The additional acreage opens up the somewhat cramped layout of the town’s two properties, which are large in area but very narrow.
“It’s 2-plus acres added to our eight-and-a-half that I think gives us flexibility as far as the square footage for siting sewage treatment, which is complicated since these are deep lots but they’re very narrow,” Van Scoyoc said this week.
Housing trust officials had feared the town was going to proceed with its own development plans on the land it owns, rather than the joint proposal that was the stated intention when the town purchased the former Triune Baptist Church property in 2019, which would have left the housing trust hamstrung in its bid to improve on the eight tiny cottages that are, to date, its only affordable housing asset.
In discussing the overlay district this past fall, town planners had told members of the Town Board that there was no benefit to putting the new zoning designation on the housing trust property because the cottages already give the property the right to more development than the overlay would add.
But Van Scoyoc said that because the plan for the development is rental apartments, which may be developed more densely than stand-alone structures, there may well be a net benefit to adding the trust’s acreage to the town plan.
The Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust was created to administer the $2.5 million that the developers of the Watchcase condominiums donated in lieu of offering below-market units as part of the luxury transformation of the former Bulova Watchcase Factory building. The trust just this past fall received the final installment of the payments when the last unit in Watchcase that was still on the market was finally sold.
The trust purchased the eight cottages, known as The Cottages, in 2014 for just under $1.3 million.
After years of trying unsuccessfully to secure grant funding to help them transform The Cottages into a townhouse-style development, the housing trust’s leadership resigned itself to the fact that if it was going to improve on what it owned, it would need a much larger scale.
When trust officials learned that the Triune Baptist Church congregation was willing to sell the neighboring 2.6 acres it owned, the trust brought the proposal to East Hampton Town, which has created more government-subsidized, below-market housing units than any other municipality on Long Island. The town purchased the Triune land for $900,000. A year later, it purchased another adjoining lot for $890,000.
Town officials have said that they hoped to be able to develop between 25 and 30 rental apartments on the land. The affordable housing overlay would give the town the right to build up to 51 apartment units on just the land it owns, but because the land lies within a special groundwater protection area, development is restricted. If a sewage treatment system is used to reduce the level of nitrogen and other nutrients in wastewater, the town could be allowed 26 units, town planners have advised the Town Board.
The housing trust had already drafted a preliminary development plan for The Cottages and Triune properties, even before the town purchased the additional acreage, that showed more than 30 units could be built with a sewage treatment system.
“What we showed them was a 33-unit project over our piece and theirs,” said Ed Reale, a member of the Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust’s board of directors.
“We didn’t want to go into this half-assed,” added Gregory Ferraris, the former Sag Harbor mayor and a member of the trust’s board. “We had a site plan that showed the two properties combined. We designed the full treatment plant on site. You couldn’t find a better place for this project. There’s public transportation going right by it several times a day, there’s no dense development around it, there’s public water nearby. It checks off all the boxes.”
Immediate neighbors had offered some mild objections to the town’s plans, but the main hurdles to the development plans appear to be environmental and opposition from the Wainscott School District.
The impending affordable housing development has already been tagged a threat to the future of the Wainscott School by school officials, who have said that if too many new students come into the school district, it could render the two-room schoolhouse obsolete and force the district to shutter it and send students to feeder districts.
The housing trust officials say they have already begun working on solutions that would allow the children from the new development to attend the Sag Harbor School District, which is walking distance from The Cottages — either through a tuition agreement with Wainscott or by shifting the school district boundary by about 1,000 feet to encompass the new housing development.
The housing trust board members said that their purchase of The Cottages saved a rare multi-family property from being snatched up by profit-seeking developers, but that the small cottages are not what the trust envisions as a solution to housing around Sag Harbor.
“These were summer cottages, built 50-60 years ago, they’re substandard under current codes — but the key was it was eight [certificates of occupancy],” Ferraris said. “We never wanted to keep this property status quo. It’s something we want to make into a viable affordable housing project — better than it is.”