07/03/12 9:00pm

It’s good news that Suffolk County National Bank is exploring the idea of selling the 4-acre commercial remnant of the old Shelter Island Nursery as a residential parcel that might yield two building lots. The bank may, or may not, tear down the commercial buildings on the site and subdivide the property itself, depending on sales and marketing considerations, no doubt. But either way, it’s certain no one expects the bank to try to sell the parcel as commercial.

Two more houses along St. Mary’s Road will conform to the neighborhood’s residential zoning and probably would have far less impact than a commercial nursery would, even if it’s nothing more than an eyesore.

Aesthetic impacts have their effects, including the very significant effect of reducing adjacent property values. As for a successful nursery in full operation, it would probably use a lot of water, draw a lot of traffic and also reduce adjacent property values.

The Town Board zoned the area residential for a reason: Shelter Island’s core economy is the second-home real estate and service industry. The “highest and best use” of most properties here is as residential house lots because there’s a big demand for them. Development along St. Mary’s Road had been mostly residential before the town made it official in the zoning code. The area’s residential classification simply reflected reality, not just good planning.

While the law allows pre-existing, non-conforming businesses to operate in residential zones, it also provides for their legal status to change after one year of “discontinuance.” No one doubts that the Shelter Island Nursery hasn’t been operated for years now. Under the law, it simply can’t be reopened.

The zoning code does not specify who makes the decision that a pre-existing, non-conforming use has been discontinued or when they must do it. Should the building inspector track every non-conforming use on the Island, note any that have closed, watch the calendar and come by after a year to post a sign announcing that the property has not reverted to residential? Even in a small town like Shelter Island, that’s an impractical procedure fraught with legal perils. How can the building inspector keep track of all the details for multiple properties so he knows for sure exactly when a business closed? Or whether or not the owner conducted business for one weekend in August?

Nevertheless, there should come a time when someone in local authority can make it clear to all that a pre-existing, non-conforming use is no more. In the case of the Shelter Island Nursery, it’s troubling that it all seems up to the bank to decide how to market it and what its future use might be.

What if the bank suddenly found some bright-eyed optimist buyer who wanted to run a nursery? Neighbors would have a very good case in court challenging any future commercial use. But just as it shouldn’t be up to property owners to decide what their zoning is, it shouldn’t be up to the neighbors alone to enforce the law.

06/28/12 10:28am

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | Shelter Island Nursery on St.Mary's Road.

Suffolk County National Bank may be planning to tear down the long abandoned Shelter Island Nursery buildings on St. Mary’s Road and create a two-lot residential subdivision before putting the 4-acre property on the market, Town Supervisor Jim Dougherty announced at Tuesday’s Town Board work session.

Citing “the graffiti and neglect at Shelter Island Nursery,” Mr. Dougherty said Tuesday he’d been in touch with Sean O’Connor, a vice president at Suffolk County National Bank, to discuss the property’s future and its current condition.

The bank has held a millon-dollar mortgage on the property and was the only bidder at a foreclosure sale on the steps of Town Hall in May. Mr.  Dougherty said the bank did not yet have title to the property but would soon, once routine judicial processes are completed.

The supervisor said he’d been told informally by Mr. O’Connor that the bank wanted to tear down the structures on the property and divide it into two lots before putting it on the market for residential use.

He said he had given Mr. O’Connor the phone number of Paul Mobius, the chairman of the town Planning Board, to talk about the process to be followed for filing a subdivision application.

The two “have started informal discussions,” Mr. Dougherty said. “Conversations have begun and are moving along.”

Later in the week, Mr. Dougherty said that Mr. O’Connor had told him he and bank officials expected to be at the July 10 meeting of the Planning Board to informally explore their options.

Calls to Mr. O’Connor for comment were referred to Frank Filipo, executive vice president of the bank.

He said in a telephone interview on Wednesday morning that there might have been “A little misunderstanding about what we do.”

He confirmed the bank did not yet have title to the property but expected to obtain it soon through normal administrative processes. The bank’s only intention for the property is to sell it as quickly as possible, as is the case for all properties on which it forecloses, he said.

What the supervisor had described on Tuesday, he added, “are elements of the highest and best use considerations” that an appraiser had identified for the property. That doesn’t mean the bank itself will act as an applicant before the Planning Board seeking a subdivision, Mr. Filipo indicated.

The property is zoned residential. The nursery was operated as a legal “pre-existing, non-conforming use.” Under the zoning code, one year of abandonment ends the grandfathered legal status of a commercial use in a residential zone.

The Town Board recently clarified the code’s language but did not change the one-year limit for a “discontinuance.”

Told about Mr. Filipo’s response, Supervisor Dougherty commented on Wednesday afternoon that banks “always reserve the possibility of filing for a subdivision themselves if it’s the more expeditious process” but that they “may elect at their own discretion” to let a buyer deal with such issues.

“I think they are beginning to realize it’s a complex process” to win subdivision approval and may take more time than the bank wants to put into the property.

But he reported later in the day that Mr. O’Connor had informed him of his intention to go to the Planning Board meeting next month.

The nursery, originally a 25-acre parcel that the Peconic Land Trust acquired in 1999 to help the town protect at least part of it from residential development, was divided into four lots by the Land Trust as part of a conservation plan. In late 2001, the town and county bought 18-plus acres to be kept as open space for watershed protection. As part of the deal, the town received a one-acre lot on Manwaring Road that remains in its possession and vacant.

The Land Trust also sold another one-acre building lot for residential use and the four-acre parcel with the original nursery buildings for continuing commercial use.

Sean and Erin McLean ran the property as a retail nursery for several years but put it on the market in 2008. Although they have not appeared to have conducted any business there in many years, Mr. McLean said a year ago that his wife still used nursery stock from the property for her landscaping business. Former Supervisor Al Kilb told the Town Board then that he’d seen landscape workers convening at the property.

But neighbors have been complaining for more than a year that the property has not been maintained. They said it was a danger and an eyesore. Building Inspector Bill Banks, asked by neighbors to inspect it last August, said he’d found no code violations but that Mr. McLean ought to cut back the overgrowth.  The bank does not yet formally own the property, as Mr. Dougherty reported at Tuesday’s Town Board work session, because a judge must first approve the foreclosure sale in which the bank bid $525,000 for the property. But citing the rundown and overgrown look of the property, and the latest graffiti to appear, the supervisor said he’d told Mr. O’Connor that “whether you own it or not, it’s not good for your image” to let the property fall into disrepair.

Mr. Dougherty reported Tuesday that he’d asked the Highway Department to clean up the property “today or tomorrow,” meaning Tuesday or Wednesday. He first had checked with the owner, Mr. McLean, he said, and he’d had “no issues” with the plan,
At least one board member snorted at the idea that Mr. McLean would have had problems with letting the town clean up the property.

Mr. Dougherty, noting that Mr. McLean “has no interest” in the property’s future even though he technically remained its owner, said he hadn’t brought up the idea that Mr. McLean might consider paying for the cleanup.

On Wednesday, Mr. Dougherty reported that the Highway Department had painted over grafitti and that workers brought in by the Suffolk County National Bank had arrived on the site to secure doors and windows and clean up the buildings and grounds.

“They are doing that on their own tab,” Mr. Dougherty said, praising the bank for “behaving like a responsible citizen” even though it does not technically own the property yet.

“I’m very gratified that immediately the facilities-maintenance personnel at the bank went out there today,” the supervisor said, to secure and clean up the property.

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05/03/12 5:00pm

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | Shelter Island Nursery on St.Mary's Road.

The auction of the controversial Shelter Island Nursery on St. Mary’s Road is slated for Friday at 11 a.m. on the steps of Shelter Island Town Hall.

The auction had been scheduled for April 20 but was postponed by Suffolk County National Bank, which foreclosed on owner Sean McLean, indicating the bank had a $1.06 million lien on the property.

A spokesperson for Balfe & Holland, attorneys for Shelter Island Gardens LLC, confirmed Thursday afternoon that the auction is still on schedule for Friday morning. Mr. McLean could not be reached for comment.

St. Mary’s Road neighbors have been vocal about what they call an eyesore in their area, hoping that a new owner would step in and clean up the property. It’s overgrown and there’s graffiti on several buildings.

Mr. McLean listed the property for sale in 2008. In May 2010, he said the nursery wouldn’t be reopening its retail business but that his Aberdeen Design Group would continue to provide landscape design services. Although there hadn’t been walk-in business for several years, Mr. McLean said last summer his wife Erin still was selling nursery stock from the property through her landscaping business.

In August 2011, neighbors asked building inspector Bill Banks to inspect the property and they submitted pictures of what they considered derelict and unsafe conditions. Mr. Banks said he found no reason to take any action against Mr. McLean, only suggesting that the grass could be cut and minor repairs could be made to buildings. But there was no mandated action.

The issue was an administrative matter for the Building Department, Mr. Dougherty told the Reporter at the time.

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08/14/11 3:03pm

PETER BOODY PHOTO: The Shelter Island Nursery on St. Mary's Road. Neighbors say it attracts vagrants and youths and may pose a public hazard.

Neighbors of the overgrown and vacant Shelter Island Nursery on St. Mary’s Road asked Town Building Inspector Bill Banks last week to check it for conditions they say pose a danger to the neighborhood. Soon after receiving the request, he said he planned to schedule a tour of the property with the owner soon.

He seemed skeptical about the neighbors’ concerns. After receiving a brown envelope with a letter requesting the inspections and photographs of what neighbors called unsafe conditions, Mr. Banks commented: “These people ought to be careful because they are trespassing on private property” to take photographs. He added, “I didn’t see any unsafe conditions” in the pictures.

The nursery and its garden shop have not been operated as a retail business for years and the property is currently in foreclosure. It has been on the market since 2008.

“We’d be happy to entertain any offers,” said owner Sean McLean in a phone interview. There is a $1 million debt on the property, he said, and there have been two sale contracts but the buyers backed out.

“Absolutely insane” he said he’d told Supervisor Jim Dougherty in a phone call after reading an August 3 news story reporting the supervisor had cited the shabby condition of the nursery as a possible concern for the town. “I can’t believe Jim doesn’t even pick up the phone and call me” before making a public announcement about the property, he said.

Mr. Dougherty said at the Town Board’s August 1 work session that neighbors had told him there were unsafe conditions there, including unsecured doors and abandoned propane tanks. It might be a “false alarm,” he said, but it also might be another matter of public safety like the abandoned Boylan house on Manhanset Road, which was demolished early this summer under town orders.

The issue is now an administrative matter for the Building Department, Mr. Dougherty said in a phone interview last week. “It’s in their hands and I’ll keep my eye on it,” he said.

NO PROBLEMS

As for the merits of neighbors’ concerns, “There’s nobody hanging out in the building, there are no propane tanks, there’s nothing even remotely wrong with the building,” Mr. McLean said in a phone interview last week. “There’s no damage, nothing stolen, no vandalism and no evidence of anyone breaking in,” he said.

He said he’d checked with the police after reading the news story and police had told him there had been only complaint about the property and they had listed it as “unfounded.” He also called the Building Department after the story came out and was told then that the department had no requests to look into the property for any code violations or concerns.

They bought the property in 2005. He acknowledged that he could not afford to maintain the property and said he inspected it every week.

Mr. Banks, in a phone interview last week, said he had been on the phone with Mr. McLean when an envelope was handed to him containing a letter from 10 neighbors calling for an investigation of the property and photos the neighbors claimed showed unsafe conditions.

Having driven by the property, Mr. Banks said, it did not appear to be strewn with garbage, and Mr. McLean told him its doors were secure except for two open barn doors “in the back end of the building.”

“As for kids in the fields and woods” in the rear of the property, including acreage preserved by the town under its open space program, “Kids will do what kids will do,” Mr. Banks said.

“The greenhouse could use some work but so what? I don’t see anything of catastrophic proportions,” he said, although he added Mr. McLean could have the grass mowed and the weeds cut back.

Mr. Banks said he intended to speak to Supervisor Dougherty about his findings after touring the property “and however he wants to address it with the Town Board” would be Mr. Dougherty’s decision.

Mr. McLean said Dee Morehead, one of the St. Mary’s Road neighbors calling for an inspection by the Building Department, had spoken to him a month or so ago about her concerns. “I looked into and found no grounds for believing anybody had been in there,” he said.

PROPERTY ‘A MESS’

Shelter Island Association President Tim Hogue called the property “a mess” in a phone interview.

He said there were safety and health issues, such as “no doors on the barn” and the question of “what happens to the property,” a pre-existing, non-conforming business in a residential zone. He said neighbors wanted the town to buy the property and preserve it, as the town and county did in 2001 when they jointly purchased 19 acres — the bulk of the 25-acre former nursery property — to be preserved as open space. The nursery’s retail shop and four acres around it were subdivided and sold.

Mr. Hogue said he had thought of the nursery property and its fate during the July 8 hearing on the Town Board’s now-tabled proposal to clarify the zoning code’s language for determining when a non-conforming business should be considered to have been abandoned or discontinued. Mr. McLean, as president of the Chamber of Commerce, was among many businesspeople who spoke against the proposal. Mr. Hogue spoke in favor of the rewrite, which removed the word “voluntarily” from the rule.

Although the nursery has not been open for walk-in business for years, Mr. McLean said that he and his wife Erin sell nursery stock from the property through her landscaping business.

Under the current town code, the status of a non-conforming business as legally pre-existing the property’s underlying zoning classification ends if its use has been voluntarily discontinued for a year. “A reasonable or necessary interim, however, between tenants or successors in interest or occupants shall not be construed to mean discontinuance,” according to the code’s section 133-23.