The North Fork prides itself on what residents like to call its “small town feel.” Rain or shine, neighbors relish in the wide, scenic landscape, and wave “hi” to one another — a key giveaway as to whether you’re a local or you’re new around here.
But as more larger houses began cropping up over the past few years, suddenly that sense of community was under attack.
“It feels now like Southold is rapidly turning into the Hamptons,” said Anne Murray, board member of the East Marion Community Association.
For months, residents of the North Fork have called on officials to take action concerning the massive homes they say block the sunshine, disturb natural resources and otherwise destroy the community character of neighborhoods.
“If you’re walking around your neighborhood and you’re walking past large hedges where you can’t see what’s going on, it doesn’t really promote interactions between people,” said George Maul, director of the New Suffolk Civic Association.
In May, the Southold Town Civic Associations made a public presentation calling on the Southold Town Board to change the current zoning code and limit house size in the town by September.
The median size of a new home in the U.S. was nearly 2,300 square feet in 2020, according to the U.S. Census. The size of most homes on the East End tends to be larger but generally remains less than 10,000 square feet due to town codes.
A house on a two-acre lot in Southold, on the other hand, can legally exceed 40,000 square feet, which by North Fork standards is unfathomably large. Although the town code limits height, there is no absolute maximum building area.
Some proposed regulations in Southold include limiting the maximum building area to 12,000 square feet and having a maximum length of 125 feet for all homes, not just multi-family.
Everyone who attended the meeting was generally in agreement with the proposed rules. Some wanted the restrictions to be more severe.
“I can’t say that we’ve heard any negative feedback about limiting house size,” said Drianne Benner, president of the Orient Association at the eastern edge of the North Fork. Other leaders agreed, saying that they’ve only received positive feedback other than a comment or two pointing to existing codes that are already on the books.
Big ideas, little change
Discussions over home sizes have been brewing in the community for years. More than five years ago, the Orient Association surveyed its membership in order to evaluate some of the top priorities in the community, with home size cited as one of the biggest concerns.
When asked whether construction should be limited so as not to exceed the scale of neighboring homes, 80 percent of members who voted agreed.
“It takes time to work together and come together, and we’ve all come together … in sharing our concerns about house size,” Benner said.
And yet, not much has changed.
There was an unspoken sense of hope across Zoom screens as the second-to-last slide of the presentation read, “Resolve TONIGHT to Take Action to Adopt Code Changes to Limit House Size.”
The town board couldn’t make any commitments about when it would call for a code committee. Town Supervisor Scott Russell said it would likely be on the agenda for the next available work session, though it wasn’t clear when that would be.
There’s a sense of unison, but not everyone is in agreement. Town board member Jim Dinizio told Newsday in March that regulating home sizes would be difficult and said he didn’t feel that house size was a problem in the area. Dinizio couldn’t be reached for comment.
“It’ll be really interesting to see if there are outside groups or outside individuals that come in to fight against it and see what they have to say,” said town board member Robert Ghosio.
Although the discussion around home size has been a hot topic in some social circles for years, it isn’t something everyone’s heard a lot about until recently.
Compass agents Eric and Bridget Elkin, two of the top sellers on the North Fork, said they first started to hear the conversation bubble into the public eye in recent weeks.
“I don’t think that most people in the North Fork would consider it a huge problem, but I think we’re both in agreement that it is good to get ahead of it,” Bridget Elkin said.
Several brokerages that were contacted for this story, including Corcoran and Douglas Elliman, declined to participate. Multiple developers also declined to comment.
The Elkins said they were generally in favor of putting some sort of regulation in place. They called the discussion over house size “necessary” and “positive,” especially as swaths of people set their sights on Long Island in hopes of finding more space.
“The recipe for success has been building on what we have, not fundamentally changing it,” Eric Elkin said. While he couldn’t think of any clients who would push back on some sort of revamped guidelines, the only criticisms he’s heard to date are people questioning how big of a role the government should play in personal property use.
With the possibility of change comes anxiety — but also excitement.
“It’s actually encouraging that groups are uniting to say, ‘What can we see being an issue in the future and how can we address it now to keep positive momentum going?’” he added.