Legislature approves first Sylvester Manor preservation deal

PETER BOODY PHOTO | The 18th century manor house at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island.

Suffolk Executive Steve Levy on Tuesday announced final legislative approval of the purchase of development rights to 26.4 acres of the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm on Shelter Island near the corner of Manhanset Road and Cobbetts Lane, the first of two acquisitions that have been in the works in partnership with the Town of Shelter Island.

Another deal for preserving a 57-acre field on Manwaring Road is expected to close next year.

The development rights on the 26.4-acre field will be purchased for $2,402,400, with the county paying 70 percent of the total cost and the town the balance. The purchase was approved in one of two resolutions introduced by Mr. Levy and adopted Tuesday by the Suffolk Legislature, the other acquiring the development rights to the 55-acre Delalio Sod Farm in Riverhead.

Town Supervisor Jim Dougherty commented, “I’m delighted to be a partner with Suffolk County and want to thank my Suffolk County friends for their generosity in paying 70 percemnt of the purchase price.”

The development rights to the sod farm were acquired for $3,276,270. The farm has been a grower and wholesale supplier of high-quality turf grass for the past 50 years. Delalio’s sod product can be found in Central Park, at Gracie Mansion and the Bronx Zoo Conservancy.

The historic Sylvester Manor plantation was established in 1652 on fertile land at the head of Gardiners Creek. It is one of the few properties in America to have been in the hands of the same family since soon after its first settlement by Europeans.

Sylvester Manor in the 19th century  was a residence for one of America’s first food industrialists and the inventor of baking powder, Eben Norton Horsford. His descendent, Oben Ostby, inherited the property from the estate of Andrew Fiske, whose late wife Alice had a life estate in the property and lived there until her death in 2006.

Now run by a private, non-profit foundation set up by Mr. Ostby and run by a board of directors and executive director, the farm — managed by Mr. Ostby’s nephew Bennett Konesni — raises organic foods and sponsors educational programs that explore the history and culture of food, both on Shelter Island and across the region.

Farm operations currently include the management of a flock of 65 hens and a flock of guinea fowl, and 60 acres of old field are being cleared. Future plans include widespread livestock management on the property and the production of grain with a wind-powered 1810 gristmill from plus the growth of the facility into a fully diversified small farm, selling direct-to-market vegetables and meats.

The manor house, which is not visible from any roadways on the Island, on the property dates from the mid-1700s and is referred to as “new” because it replaces the original house dating from the 1600s. It burned in a fire.

For the county, part of the purchase price comes from an $1.09-million federal grant from the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program secured by Congressman Tim Bishop and first announced in September 2010. Town Supervisor Jim Dougherty had said at a Town Board meeting the grant would help reduce the town’s share of the purchase price. But recently he reported the county would not share the savings it achieved through the grant with the town.

The latest acquisition complements a 22-acre conservation easement established through the Peconic Land Trust in 2009 on the east side of Gardiners Creek. It includes 1,800 feet of shoreline.

The Town of Shelter Island and Suffolk County made a formal joint offer early this year to purchase development rights to the 57.1-acre field for $82,000 an acre, or $4,682,200.

“Once again, Suffolk County has generously agreed to pay 70 percent of the purchase price,” Mr. Dougherty said at the time, “with Shelter Island paying the $1,404,000 balance out of its two-percent open space monies.”

It will bring the current preservation effort at Sylvester Manor to 107.7 acres, including the 22-acre conservation easement established in 2009 and the 26.4-acre field the purchase of which was just approved by the legislature. The Sylvester Manor property is 243 acres total.