Liberty Gardens Affordable Housing Hearing Draws Crowd - 27 East

Liberty Gardens Affordable Housing Hearing Draws Crowd

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Charles

Charles "Chic" Voorhis

It was standing room only at Tuesday night's Southampton Town Board meeting.   DANA SHAW

It was standing room only at Tuesday night's Southampton Town Board meeting. DANA SHAW

The Southampton Town Board listens to comments from the public regarding Liberty Gardens.  DANA SHAW

The Southampton Town Board listens to comments from the public regarding Liberty Gardens. DANA SHAW

Southampton Village Board members Bill Manger, Gina Arresta and Roy Stevenson.   DANA SHAW

Southampton Village Board members Bill Manger, Gina Arresta and Roy Stevenson. DANA SHAW

Southampton Village Board member Bill Manger speaks at Tuesday night's Southampton Town Board meeting.    DANA SHAW

Southampton Village Board member Bill Manger speaks at Tuesday night's Southampton Town Board meeting. DANA SHAW

Linda Ashcraft speaks at Tuesday night's Southampton Town Board meeting.  DANA SHAW

Linda Ashcraft speaks at Tuesday night's Southampton Town Board meeting. DANA SHAW

Busses brought residents of the developer's other apartment complexes to speak in support of the project.   KITTY MERRILL

Busses brought residents of the developer's other apartment complexes to speak in support of the project. KITTY MERRILL

A standing room only crowd packed  Town Hall, spilling into the hallway,  to weigh in on the Liberty Gardens affordable housing project proposed for Southampton.    KITTY MERRILL

A standing room only crowd packed Town Hall, spilling into the hallway, to weigh in on the Liberty Gardens affordable housing project proposed for Southampton. KITTY MERRILL

Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren and Deputy Mayor Gina  Arresta attended on behalf of village residents.   KITTY MERRILL

Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren and Deputy Mayor Gina Arresta attended on behalf of village residents. KITTY MERRILL

Supporters and opponents both hoisted signs.   KITTY MERRILL

Supporters and opponents both hoisted signs. KITTY MERRILL

Lorraine Allston speaks at the Southampton Town Board meeting on Tuesday night.  DANA SHAW

Lorraine Allston speaks at the Southampton Town Board meeting on Tuesday night. DANA SHAW

Kitty Merrill on Oct 26, 2022

Thirty minutes before the Town Board hearing on the proposed Liberty Gardens affordable housing development was to begin on Tuesday, October 25, a line was already snaking down the steps and onto the sidewalk in front of Southampton Town Hall.

One man in the queue said he’d come from Amityvile, on a bus with other residents from Liberty Village, a development built by the affordable housing agency Concern Housing. He said letters asking residents to come out to Southampton to support Liberty Gardens were tacked to everyone’s door in his complex, and noted that he’d gone to hearings other times to support Concern’s proposals elsewhere.

Inside the Town Board meeting room, a standing-room-only crowd spilled into the hallway.

Over the course of approximately three hours, proponents and opponents, nearly equally divided, provided the Town Board with their views of Concern’s request for a zone change to allow the development of 5 acres just off Country Road 39 in Southampton with 60 affordable rental units.

Concern is asking to change the existing residential zoning for the acreage, located behind the Southampton Full Gospel Church, to multifamily, and increase the permitted density from six units per acre to 12. If the Town Board grants the request, the project will then go before the Town Planning Board, the decision-makers who will review the application asking to subdivide the church property to allow for the development, as well as the details of the development itself.

The zone change and the environmental study for the project were the stated focus of the hearing. But few spoke to the actual focus.

Rather, nearly a dozen up-island veterans and representatives of veteran advocacy agencies extolled the benefits of Concern’s varied developments. Another dozen local supporters spoke to the crushing housing crisis, and more than 20 opponents weighed in with worry about varied aspects of the project’s location, particularly its impact on traffic on the already congested County Road 39.

Some audience members held signs that said “Say Yes to Veterans Housing, Housing for Veterans,” while others hoisted placards with the message “Stop Density Increase” and “No Rezoning.”

And the majority of members of the Southampton Village Board — Mayor Jesse Warren and Trustees Gina Arresta, Bill Manger and Roy Stevenson — urged the board to keep them in the loop, since the development is situated at the village border.

Speaking for his fellow trustees, Manger asked the board to keep the hearing open, but the Town Board voted to close it to public comment; written comment will be permitted for two weeks.

After representatives of the applicant offered an overview of the project, Councilwoman Cynthia McNamara wanted to ask questions, offering, “I’m not going to be brief.”

Supervisor Jay Schneiderman asked, instead, to let the public speak first. At the end of the over three-hour hearing, the councilwoman spoke for 10 minutes, outlining an array of questions and concerns.

Disabled veteran John Mott from Liberty Landing in Ronkonkoma was among the contingent of veterans taking the podium to extol Liberty’s supportive community. Frank Amalfitano of United Veterans Beacon House, an organization dedicated to providing housing for homeless and at-risk veterans, attested to the integrity of Concern Housing and described its developments as “stunning apartment complexes.”

Thomas Ronayne, director of Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency, noted that Suffolk County has the largest veteran population in the state. He’s worked with Concern Housing for two decades and praised the agency, characterizing the organization as “responsible, responsive and transparent.”

Making note of a “stigma” attached to housing for veterans, Ronayne emphasized, “We make good neighbors.”

Long Island’s housing crisis particularly affects veterans, another representative from Beacon, Louis Falco, said: “We’re choking our own society.”

Reginald Cain, also from Liberty Village, said it was appalling that residents in Southampton would oppose the project. “Give these vets a chance,” he urged.

Opponents agreed to the need for housing for veterans, some citing family members who served. However, the project was marketed to the public as a development geared toward providing much-needed housing for the town’s workforce.

Frances Genovese of Southampton decried what she said was a deception. It’s not a development for local workers, she said. “This is a secure facility for a compromised population that will be brought here,” she said.

Shinnecock Hills resident Linda Ashcraft pointed out that 20 of the units will be made available to veterans with illnesses consistent with the State Office of Mental Health’s guidelines, with 10 additional units funded through the state’s supportive housing units initiative. The Office of Mental Health provides over $26 million of the project’s projected $33 million cost.

Ralph Fasano, Concern’s executive director, reported that the project cost had ballooned to $38 million as the project wended its way through the town’s process. Other projects that received grants after Liberty Gardens have already been completed.

“How many units will actually be available for local working people priced out of the housing market in this precedent setting, high-density development on already over-burdened CR 39?” Ashcraft asked. Citing county waiting lists that number 9,000, she predicted that the project “would import a large population of people who may not be able to work.”

“This is a facility, not a housing complex,” Elisa Thompson commented.

Southampton Village resident and former board member Joseph McLoughlin said that as a person with disabilities, he found it offensive that the developer hid behind people who are disabled to push the application forward. That the developer bused in residents from other communities to speak in support of Liberty Gardens “proves our point,” Genovese said.

“This does not meet the needs of our community,” Daniel Trunk offered. “We’re not taking care of our own.”

Curtis Highsmith, executive director of the Southampton Town Housing Authority, attempted to allay the fear that the housing would end up brining new people to the area, rather than serving locals. He said that while federal guidelines require housing lotteries be open to anyone, the overwhelming number of units end up going to local residents. People apply where they already work and have their families, he said.

Katy Casey, executive director of the East Hampton Town Housing Authority affirmed Highsmith’s assertion, stating that 90 percent of the residents in East Hampton’s complexes “came from our zip code.”

Presenting the position of the majority of the Southampton Village Board, Manger said there are no assurances that “even one unit” will go to a local resident, adding that it should be first and foremost.

Highsmith noted that when the Sandy Hollow Cove development was planned, people worried about increased traffic. There have been no accidents resulting from the development, he said.

Down the road, near the Liberty Gardens site, is different, opponents argued. Evelyn Johnson of Hillcrest Avenue, which abuts the development, called the congested area a “death trap,” while Walter Dean decried Concern’s traffic study listing anticipated trips the complex will generate as “laughable.”

Village resident Mackie Finnerty noted that as County Road 39 developed, no one complained about increased density. She suggested that Liberty Gardens is a model development.

Adding 60 units near the intersection of County Road 39 and North Sea Road, “seems like a crazy idea,” Manger said. Offering the position of the Village Board, he said that Liberty Gardens is a good concept, but in a “very, very poor” location.

Anton Borovino, an attorney representing neighbors, said the developer’s traffic study was “sugar-coated.”

Pointing out that he was relaying issues voiced by village residents, Warren called Hillcrest “one of the last working class communities in the village.”

Residents of the neighborhood continued to express worry that once it becomes clear that the development’s sole access onto County Road 39 is problematic, a new access will go through their narrow streets, despite assurances.

“Once somebody is smoked,” Jonathan Finney said, “Hillcrest is going to turn into CR 39B.”

But Lorne Simon rebuked opponents’ traffic argument as “a lot of ignorance.” As opponents speak of egress, and the potential impact on emergency services, the veteran declared, “We’re talking about people’s lives here … I went and fought for this country so we can have the right to stress the police department.

“We are not going to be a blight on this community,” he added.

Minerva Perez, executive director of Organización Latino Americana of Eastern Long Island, said she and her staff regularly travel County Road 39, enduring the congestion, and would gladly navigate additional traffic, if it helps provide housing for veterans.

Varvara Gokea referenced a speaker who praised Concern projects as places of peace and happiness. “Peace and happiness? Not on 39,” she said, saying residents will live “in an ocean of cars.”

Retired schoolteacher Janet Grossman said she came to Town Hall to support the project, but after listening to speakers, had mixed feelings. The project needs to be “rethought very carefully,” she said.

Michale Daly, a co-founder of the organization Yes In My Back Yard, rebuked opponents as the “vile underbelly” of the community. The hearing brought out the community at its best and at its worst, he said. A petition on Change.org that garnered over 800 signatures opposing the project is rife with misinformation, he claimed.

Opponents “should be ashamed,” Marc Ernestus said, to feel traffic is more important than providing housing.

Daly’s son Cooper and Pamela Grienke both spoke of experiencing periods of homelessness, the latter stating that her daughter, who was a volunteer EMT, had to move away from Southampton. She had to move some 11 times in 28 years. Cooper said he lived in his van last summer.

Few speakers actually addressed the environmental study, known as a draft environmental impact statement, conducted by the consulting Nelson Pope Voorhis on behalf of Concern. Speaking on behalf of the Group for the East End, Jennifer Hartnagel said the DEIS was deficient because it fails to consider how the lot that contains the church could be developed and its cumulative impacts if a subdivision is approved.

Hampton Bays resident Gayle Lombardi said she was horrified that, as a child of a veteran, the issue has pitted neighbor against neighbor. “It’s your fault!” she told the Town Board, suggesting that the project is developer driven, as the board analyzed it “in a vacuum.”

McNamara agreed.

Once the public portion of the hearing reached an end, the councilwoman argued for the hearing to be left open for additional public comment. Explaining her reasoning on Wednesday morning, she said, “I know people came and saw the line to the street and left. I wanted to give those people the chance to come back.”

She said the developer brought in two busloads of veterans from other Concern Housing developments. “They arrived 45 minutes early, took up the seats in the auditorium, and community members were left to stand outside.”

It proves the point, she said, that if the developer had to bus in support, Liberty Gardens “is for people who aren’t from here.”

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