A look at today’s real estate listings for single-family houses on the North Fork can take your breath away. The numbers suggest a new economic reality has taken hold here that will present enormous challenges going forward.

As of last week, there were 116 single-family homes on the market in Southold Town — and 79 of them were priced at over $1 million, according to the Multiple Listing Service. On average over recent weeks, the records show 80 to 90 homes out of a total of 110 to 120 offered for sale were listed for more than $1 million.

Those numbers are the clearest sign yet that a great economic shift is underway on the North Fork. A similar transformation occurred years ago on the South Fork and changed everything there — socially as well as economically. 

The cost of a single-family home on our side of Peconic Bay is now far beyond the reach of your average resident, whatever the definition of “average” is. A young person who grew up here, went away to college and wants to return, raise a family and volunteer at the local fire department, would have to find work with a hedge fund or tech conglomerate in the city to be able to afford a house here.

Along with sky-high home prices, the cost per acre of farmland and open space — which most residents want saved from development — has battered the grand ideal of “saving what’s left.” Large-scale preservation seems unrealistic in this new economic context. 

These prices make discussion of “affordable housing” or “workforce housing” — or whatever equivalent term you use — an exercise in futility. The need is too great, and the cost of land to build on — plus construction and other related costs — renders the issue moot.

One of the ripple effects of these astronomical prices can be seen in school district enrollment numbers. Newsday recently published a report that found, in sum, that three of every four Long Island school districts experienced dramatic declines in enrollment from September 2013 to September 2023. Experts say one critical reason for this is the high cost of living.

In all 125 Long Island school districts, total enrollment during that decade dropped by 33,394. Here on the North Fork, the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District saw K-12 enrollment drop by 27.3% — from 1,415 students to 1,029 — during that period, and in Southold, it dropped by 16.1% — from 858 to 720. 

Reflecting differences in housing stock and demographics, both Riverhead and Greenport school districts saw increases over the 10 years. In Greenport, enrollment rose 11.4%, with 71 additional students. Riverhead’s enrollment rose by 9.9%, adding 518 students.

Perhaps one of the many ripple effects of rising regional home prices is the question of whether the towns should undertake property tax reassessments to better reflect today’s prices. 

Currently, when considering major commercial development proposals, officials in the five East End towns require extensive planning reviews that examine their impact on traffic, water quality, sewage, etc. Maybe another line of inquiry should be added: Where will the employees of these new enterprises be able to live? If not near the new jobs — where?

Many North Fork employers, including hospitals, schools, restaurants and the building trades, say many of their employees commute from far to the west. All these factors bring to mind the Suffolk County Industrial Development Agency’s outrageous recent approval of tax breaks for the Enclaves hotel project in Southold — in defiance of repeated concerns raised by town officials and scores of residents. And pay levels for some of its employees would surely not be enough to allow them to purchase a home here. 

As we’ve said before in this space, nostalgia is not a viable government policy. But neither is standing on the side of the road watching the goose that laid the golden egg get run over. Local officials have very hard work cut out for them.

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