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Upzoning Sought for Employee Housing

Wed, 09/08/2021 - 15:24

After having employees quit because of the high cost of housing, Michael Ruddy, the owner of Ruddy and Sons Masonry in East Hampton, is seeking permission from the town board to build affordable apartments on land next to his business.

Mr. Ruddy owns adjoining properties on Three Mile Harbor Road. His business, at 33 Three Mile Harbor Road, is on a nearly 40,000-square-foot parcel that is zoned commercial-industrial. His vacant lot next door, nearly 52,000 square feet, is cleared of vegetation and zoned for residential use. He is seeking to annex .018 acres of the residential lot for his business, for use as additional storage and parking space, and to build manor house-style apartments on the remaining land.

Tom Ruhle, director of the town's Office of Housing and Community Development, has said that the residential parcel could accommodate four 600-square-foot units, according to Laurie Wiltshire of Land Planning Services, who is advising Mr. Ruddy. The town board would have to rezone the annexed land from residential to commercial-industrial, and the vacant land to be rezoned as an Affordable Housing Overlay District. The board has asked the planning board to weigh in on the proposals.

Of the 25 people working at Ruddy and Sons, six have had to commute from Flanders and Hampton Bays because of housing costs, Mr. Ruddy said at a planning board meeting on Sept. 1. "I don't have a lot of turnover with employees . . . generally they stay with me, but this year, I lost three really good employees," he said. The three were married with children, he explained, and had been spending up to four hours commuting back and forth, leaving them little time for a home life.

"In the morning, they're leaving at 5:30, and it takes them an hour and a half to get here," he said. "This summer in particular, with the traffic, it's taken them two and a half hours to get home. Every business out here has the same issue. We're losing employees because they're spending too much time traveling."

Affordable housing can be developed for employees of an East Hampton business as long as they meet income eligibility requirements, Mr. Ruhle said Tuesday. His office would vet the prospective residents.

Mr. Ruddy said it would be far more profitable to build a 7,000-square-foot house on the vacant lot and "flip it to a second-home owner . . . but that's not what we need out here. We need to get employees that are able to live in the town and afford to live in the town."

Though all the planning board members acknowledged the great need for affordable housing, there was disagreement about whether the zone changes were warranted or appropriate.

Kathy Cunningham, the vice chairwoman, said she would support the Affordable Housing Overlay zone change, but not as a "quid pro quo" for expanding the size of the commercial lot. "I don't support taking 8,000 square feet of residential property and turning it into commercial property, and if that's the deal, I can't vote for that," she said.

The properties, which lie just north of North Main Street, are in a residential neighborhood, she said, and allowing Mr. Ruddy to annex residential land for commercial use fits the definition of spot zoning, "the process of singling out a small parcel of land for a use classification totally different from that of the surrounding area, to the benefit of the owner of such property and to the detriment of others."

Ms. Cunningham's colleagues and Ms. Wiltshire disagreed that the expansion of the masonry business would be a detriment to the neighborhood, noting that the area contains several other commercial businesses including a scrap yard, a gas station, and a martial arts dojo. "We're clearly not in a strictly residential neighborhood," said Ms. Wiltshire.

The board will write a memo to the town board in support of the zone changes, noting Ms. Cunningham's dissent. A public hearing will be held when the proposal comes before the town board.

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