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Bulova Affordable Housing Debate Goes Yet Another Round

Originally Posted: January 24, 2008

Peter Neely

Noting a word of caution to the members of the Sag Harbor Planning Board, Attorney Tony Tohill suggested they not revisit already reviewed facets of the proposed project. Photos by Peter Neely

Sag Harbor - In the latest attempt of the Sag Harbor Village Planning Board to wrestle the Bulova Watchcase Factory development project's affordable housing equation, board members once again engaged in a round table discussion of the best option for the village's affordable housing initiative, of which developers, Cape Advisors, Inc., are required to contribute. Attempts to place affordable units within the proposed luxury condominium complex appeared to have been successfully skirted by the developers who, in citing budgetary impossibilities, offered instead a per-unit fee to the village to be pooled into a yet-to-be established housing trust.

Meeting the requirement set by the Suffolk County Planning Commission that mandates a 20 percent 'affordable housing' ratio in the development, which works out to $175,000 per unit constructed, the total contribution that the developers would make using the formula would be $2.3 million. This sizable fund would then be set up as financial aid in partial payment to first time homeowners in need of down payments and mortgage assistance, that would then be returned to the trust when the house was put up for sale and a profit realized on the investment.

Planning Board member Jack Tagliasacchi spoke in favor of the
housing trust equation.

Sag Harbor Village Mayor Greg Ferarris, a proponent of implementing the village housing trust, reports the trust is already in the works, and will be put in place regardless of the planning board's decision as to how best to work with Cape Advisors to meet their affordable housing obligation, and whether or not to accept their $2.3 million offer.

Housing Trust In The Works
"Housing trusts are becoming more and more popular across the country and many have been implemented successfully," Ferarris explained in a phone interview Thursday. A selected board would manage the trust, which will function as a state-recognized non-profit. "The [non-profit] corporation has been formed. We are probably looking at a three month lead time to getting [approval from the] IRS and New York State Attorney General's office." At that point, the real benefits of the trust can be realized, he added.

"It adds flexibility to the municipality or community to deal with affordable housing," Ferraris continued, suggesting that a trust would work particularly well in Sag Harbor, which has one of the highest densities on the East End. "We lie within zone five of the Suffolk County ground water management program, and cannot increase density in the village," he explained.

Ferraris explained the housing trust solution developed as a means of addressing density concerns, adding that "even if [affordable housing units are] not on site, we are given the buyout option for developers. We are looking at $175,000 per unit into the Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust."

Planning board member Neil Slevin cautioned against asking for too
much from the applicant.

Cape Advisors, Inc. offered that figure as discussions concerning affordable housing appeared to slow down the SEQRA review process currently underway by the Planning Board, which has been meeting over 10 months to fine-tune the development plan of the mammoth vacant structure, which once housed a bustling watch factory. An initial offer of approximately $80,000 per unit was quickly doubled, and then some, by the applicants as the review began to slow late last Fall.

Members of the planning board were initially curious about the payment in lieu of construction offer which now appears to be the cog in the wheel of the final approval stage on the project.

At Tuesday's meeting the Village Board members once again expressed their opinion, one by one, of the proposal on the table. A majority were generally in favor of the trust and Cape Advisor's $2.3 million payment offer, contending it would prove to be a creative approach to begin addressing a mounting work force housing deficiency.

Most In Favor
"I think that a fund will work better than trying to divide the property," Jack Tagliasacchi asserted. "Also, really, I celebrate the project to save a building that is an historic building in Sag Harbor."

"These folks will be part of the solution to a real problem we have," board member Neil Slevin concurred, agreeing with Tagliasacchi. "We should accept the offer."

"Nobody else had to come and confront the affordable housing to my knowledge, to this extent, until Bulova," board member George Burnett added. "[To set] aside over $2 million for affordable housing - I'm in favor of it."

Raising more questions, Planning Board Chairman Jerome Toy
suggested the board go back to the applicant for more information
on the calculations.

It was Planning Board Chairman Jerome Toy who sounded the dissenting remark, "I'm on the fence," which opened up a lengthy go-round between the board members yet again. As the only member of the planning board that appeared hesitant on accepting the housing offer, Toy cautioned, "I think it all sounds good, but needs more inspection of the numbers to know that the fund is going to help 50 or 100 people."

Toy added that he would like to request further information from the developer before making a decision as to whether the $175,000 per unit towards the trust is an adequate amount.

"I think we still have stuff on the table to expect," he continued. "We still have things to ask the developer as to why the deal is tailored the way it is tailored."

This suggestion was met with some hesitation from other members of the board, who expressed a fear that delaying the project further might dissuade the developers. Burnett related his concern to the current downward trend of the economy, wondering if further delay would make potential developers hesitant about the project should Cape Advisors, Inc. decide not to see it through to completion.

"For that place to sit there, and for someone to come out and say, 'This is what they told me the other contractor had a problem with,'" Burnett conjectured, "it will be another 20 years [before Bulova gets renovated]."

Revisiting earlier discussions involving tenancy of the proposed luxury project, Toy expressed an interest in further understanding what demographic is being targeted for the purchase of the units, and what profit margin would be realized by the developers. "It is important because of the amount of money that is being offered - if it is only high-end, what we've done is eliminate mixed use, which I think is more of a benefit to the village and community," he said.

Cautioning the board to not back-track over previously addressed aspects of the review project, Village Attorney Anthony Tohill said to re-consider mixed use, such as commercial and retail spaces on the first floor, which would set the project back significantly in the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) review process, and likely delay the proceedings for months.

Tireless in their debate, board members stood firm in their opinions.


Asking Too Much?
Slevin also expressed concern that asking much more of the developer might not only deter them from going through on the project, it would potentially fall outside the legal bounds of the board. "No municipal power can force them to put [affordable housing] in, other than this 20 percent requirement [of the county]. At the end of the day what we will lose is the building. That's a great old building that is falling down, that I would like to save," he concluded.

"The point is," Tagliasacchi tried to summarize, "let's not give this project away."

Slevin also stressed that the time frame on the project is significant. "We are kind of under the gun here," he suggested. "The developer could abandon the whole idea. There are people who don't want this project."

"Maybe my concern is not that monumental, but how much under the gun are we?" Toy questioned. "It seems to me that we are always under pressure, we always operate this way. I want my ducks in a row."

Dennis Downes, attorney for the applicant appeared fatigued by the
proceedings.

"I came to the conclusion that at the end of the day, we are still better off [with this offer] than having a superfund site," Slevin continued, clarifying his position. "Therefore, I was thinking, why would I want to see their business projections, what good would it do us?" Slevin asked, adding that it would be nice to have assurance of the financial viability of the project and to understand how the $175,000 per unit offer would impact their budget, concluding that it was however not essential to his decision.

"I think you are jumping the gun," Toy insisted. "It is a great offer, but we did not inspect it enough to know."

The meeting concluded with an agreement to not reach a decision, but instead draft a resolution requesting financial illumination from the developers. Seeking to establish legal footing for the request, Attorney Tohill summarized the board's position, saying that the entire board is in favor of dealing with affordable housing, and that the trust fund problem is "challenged on the basis of pure economics [as to whether] the sum of money is adequate." He added that, based on the chairman's concerns, more information is needed as to the relationship between the money per unit contribution and the cost of creating affordable housing off-site.

The board's concerns were drafted into a resolution which will be forwarded to the developer in time for a reply to be considered at the next Planning Board session scheduled for Feb. 26. A final decision on the affordable housing portion of the application must be made before the SEQRA review process can enter a second phase. The board made clear that they hope that the February meeting will resolve the current debate and allow the project to move on in the SEQRA review.



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