Fishers Island utility seeks town OK for more worker housing

Year-round housing critical for Fishers Island Utility Co.

A view of Fishers Island. (Credit: Kelly Zegers, Suffolk Times)

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09/21/2017 10:09 AM

The Fishers Island Utility Co. is stressing a need for year-round housing for its workers, which it says is critical to its services and the safety of an island reachable only by water or air.

At last Tuesday’s Southold Town Board work session, utility company president Chris Finan and board of directors member Tom Siebens proposed changing the single-family residential zoning at properties it owns to Hamlet Density zoning. This would allow four units to be built per acre.

While the town continues to grapple with how to address a lack of affordable housing, Fishers Island, which is 11 miles from the mainland, demonstrates an urgent need that comes down to what Mr. Finan called “a life safety issue.”

“We need the people that have the ability to isolate dangerous situations and address them as quickly as possible,” Mr. Finan said Tuesday. If the island, which is about nine miles long and a mile wide, were hit with conditions similar to what Florida experienced during Hurricane Irma, having no utility workers there “could be a very serious issue,” he said.

The company wants to provide housing for about 15 of its 20 employees. In the past, it has provided “on-call” housing for workers, but that has not offered the best quality of life in a “constrained environment,” Mr. Finan said.

“Ideally, we want to have people who live here year round become involved in the EMT and fire department in addition to being part of the utility company,” he said. “Over the years, through attrition and that kind of thing, we can’t expect when somebody leaves that somebody else has an ability to purchase the houses because they’re just way out of most people’s means.”

Initially, the utility company will try to achieve the zoning change on a vacant 1.78-acre parcel and “learn as we go” as its works with the town moving forward on other properties it owns.

“Affordable housing in general is very critical out here, whether it’s for utility company employees or for other people,” said Town Board member and Fishers Island resident Louisa Evans.

The Fishers Island School also has some housing for employees, but not enough, she noted. Many of the teachers who live on the island also provide fire and EMT services and Ms. Evans hopes employees of the utility company could do the same.

The town code committee will review a proposal to create affordable housing options through zoning exemptions.

Supervisor Scott Russell said the challenge of being able to retain young workers is one all businesses within the town are dealing with.

He called the utility company’s proposal “innovative” and said that while he likes the idea, he wants to know more.

“This is an issue that’s proven difficult to come up with solutions, so any ideas really need to be put on the table and thoroughly considered,” Mr. Russell said.

Southold Town recently released a video with the goal of addressing misconceptions about affordable housing and the townwide need for it. The town is currently drafting a code change to allow apartments as principal uses in commercial zones, the supervisor noted.

The utility company’s proposal would go first to the Planning Board for recommendations and input, then to the Town Board to set up code committee meetings to devise a draft that could go out for public hearing, Mr. Russell said.

Fishers Island utility seeks town OK for more worker housing

Fishers Island as seen on July 3, 2012.
Fishers Island as seen on July 3, 2012.  (Credit: Kevin P Coughlin)

Southold Town officials are studying a proposal from a Fishers Island-based electric company that would require a zoning change on properties it owns to allow for more housing for workers they say are vital to providing utility services on the island.

Fishers Island Utility Co. with a work force of about 20 people, now houses four field workers and some administrative staff in three of its properties on the island. The company is looking to convert the zoning of some of its properties from single-family residential to “hamlet density status,” which allows for multifamily residences.

The utility company would need the zoning change in order to create between eight to 10 units of housing on a vacant 1.78-acre land parcel it owns on Central Avenue to house some of their electric, water and telephone field workers. Company officials said having the workers on the island was essential, especially during an emergency.

“One of our biggest challenges is if the [ferry] boat isn’t running, then nobody can get here,” company President Chris Finan said, noting the limits on ferry service, especially in the off season. The 9-mile long, 1-mile wide island 11 miles off the tip of the North Fork is only reachable by ferry from New London, Connecticut.

Utility company board of directors member Tom Siebens and Finan told the Southold Town Board at its Tuesday work session that creating more housing on Fishers Island for those employees would help retain field workers, which the company said has been difficult. The goal is to eventually create enough housing for at least 15 employees, Finan said after the meeting.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said Tuesday after the meeting he supports sending the proposal to the Planning Board for tuning, and added if the proposal worked, the town could “possibly” try it on the mainland.

“I support new and innovative ways of solving the affordable housing crisis. If this plan works, it may be a good model to try here,” Russell said.

But board members said there was an urgent need to get housing set up for company workers to provide electricity to island residents at all times.

“I don’t think we’re going to get flak from folks on Fishers Island, because this is something they need and want,” Town Councilman Bob Ghosio said, calling the zoning proposal “a public safety issue”.

“We are a small island, and you can’t drive in during an emergency situation,” added Town Councilwoman Louisa Evans, a Fishers Island resident.

The proposal goes to the town Planning Board for consideration before returning to the town board for further review, Russell said.

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Affordable Housing on Fishers Island

At this morning’s Southold Town Board work session, Chris Finan, president of Fishers Island Utility Company, proposed a zoning change on some properties the utility owns on the island to provide housing for their workers. They are unable to provide sufficient housing to entice employees to come to Fishers Island, Finan said.

The company is in need of about 15 long-term housing units to accommodate their workers. Finan said that his employees need to live on the island in case of emergencies, adding that historically, many of the utility’s workers are volunteer firefighters and EMTs. The utility presently has dormitory style housing set up for employees who are on call, but they have recently lost five people who could have moved into the electric company long term because of housing, he said.

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