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.
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.