Bid for Apartments in Outbuildings

A hearing before the East Hampton Town Board last Thursday on allowing affordable apartments in outbuildings as well as primary residences drew questions and comments on a number of issues. All of them, said one member of the committee that recommended the change, had been carefully considered before the law was proposed.

The town code amendment would allow apartments in accessory structures such as a garage, on properties of a half-acre or more where the outbuilding is no closer to property lines than the primary residence is allowed to be. The proposal would also change the present law covering accessory apartments to allow homeowners to live in the outbuilding while renting the main house.

Apartments within residences have been allowed since 1984, with a cap of 20 in each of the town’s school districts, but few people have applied for the necessary permits. The change to the law, recommended by a town committee on affordable housing, is designed to increase the number of affordable apartments; the 20-permit quota would remain in effect.

Speaking at the hearing, David Buda, a Springs resident, said the changes were not a “meaningful approach.” Better, he said, would be rezoning land specifically for affordable housing. Allowing apartments in detached structures, he said, would change the residential character of neighborhoods. “The Springs, particularly,” he said, “is overwhelmed” with cottages, motels, and other structures that were built before the zoning code was enacted and converted to housing. The proposed change would “send the wrong message to the community,” he said.

Zachary Cohen, also of Springs, wondered whether the cost of creating an affordable apartment could, in some cases, exceed the income it would provide (there is a town-imposed cap on affordable rents). Permits for apartments in detached structures, he said, should remain in effect only if the apartments are actually rented; if they remain unused for a period of time, he said, the permit should be rescinded.

A provision in the law requiring homeowners who add affordable apartments to be full-time, year-round residents might work against their creation, Mr. Cohen said. People who go away for the winter, for example, “are the same people,” he said, who are likely to build such apartments, if they could meet the town’s rules.

“We definitely have an affordable housing problem that affects local businesses like mine,” said Pat Trunzo, a builder and a former town councilman. “If you lose too much of the local community, do you still have a community?”

“Meeting the town’s affordable housing needs has got to be a public-private partnership,” said Catherine Casey, who works in that very capacity as executive director of the East Hampton Housing Authority. An assortment of housing programs is necessary, she said.

But, said Jim McMillan, a real estate broker from Amagansett, “on properties of under an acre, I think it’s really a mistake to go this route, even though we do need it.” He expressed concern about increased density on small lots, increased septic flow, and the impact on neighbors.

According to the Suffolk Health Department, Ms. Casey noted, when housing increases to more than four bedrooms per lot, an upgraded septic system is required.

Jeanne Frankl of Amagansett, who helped draft the affordable housing recommendations as part of the town committee, said there had been a “careful balancing . . . done in putting forth this legislation,” taking the factors mentioned by speakers into consideration. “There is nothing that was mentioned here that wasn’t carefully weighed,” she said. The character of the community will change, she said, “unless we make these compromises that will have to be made to get some affordable housing.” 

At the suggestion of Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, the town board kept the record open on the affordable apartment law change, for written comments only, until next Thursday.