Sylvester Manor: A search through the centuries

PETER BOODY PHOTO | The 1730s manor house at Sylvester Manor on Gardiners Creek. A title search going back centuries is necessary before a deal to preserve 24.6 acres of the property can close.

Why would an important land preservation deal hinge on a trek into history as far back as the days of Blackbeard, wolves in the woods and Native Americans making marks on parchment deeds?

Because the land has never been sold in all its centuries of European settlement.

The town and county’s deal to purchase the development rights on 24.6 acres of open space at Sylvester Manor won’t close until after the new year, Supervisor Jim Dougherty announced at a recent Town Board meeting. The reason is the complexity of conducting a title search on property that has not changed hands except through wills for centuries.

Sylvester Manor, first settled in the mid-1600s, once covered all 8,000 acres of Shelter Island. Today its remnant covers 243 acres between Gardiners Creek, Cobbetts Lane, Manhanset Road and Manwaring Road. The manor house, hidden from roadside view, dates to the 1730s and is the second one on the site.

The manor’s latest heir, Eben Ostby, has set up the non-profit Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, Inc. to operate the manor as a working,  community-based organic farm.

The title search, the purpose of which is to make sure there are no claims or liens on the property, could cost $10,000 or “maybe more,” Mr. Dougherty said. The seller, the educational farm, would pay half the cost; the town and county will pay the other half, as well as the cost of title insurance.

Mr. Dougherty said the county had decided to switch companies to do the title search and would be using a national firm, Fidelity National Title Insurance Company. Based in Florida, it has a New York corporate office and a field office in Riverhead.
“It will be incredibly complicated,” said Fidelity’s New York attorney Jonathan Richards about conducting a search through history to confirm every transaction that has affected the Sylvester Manor property. He likened the chain of bequests and surrogate court rulings for a property like Sylvester Manor to the trunk of a tree that spreads out into more and more branches through each generation of descendants and heirs.

“You’ve got to look at every conveyance. It’s very detailed and more than just a title search. It’s an historical search,” Mr. Richards said. There can be complications such as owners who died without a will or heirs who did not live in Suffolk County so court rulings involving the property may be in some other jurisdiction. “Often there’s a missing link in the chain,” he said.

He noted that the ownership of nearby Robins Island in Peconic Bay, another property with a title history that dates back to the 17th century, “was in litigation for years.”

“You have to look at all of the conveyances,” Mr. Richards said.

“Sometimes we can only supply questions …[and] we hit a dead end,” commented Charles Wimer, executive vice president of Fidelity’s operations in New York. “Ultimately we figure it out and decide on the basis of our best guess.”

After a search, the company must decide if its results warrant offering title insurance on the property. The insurance would cover losses that result from surprise claims or liens.

To preserve open space and to provide seed money for the educational farm’s endowment, the Town of Shelter Island and Suffolk County agreed this year to make two purchases of development rights from fields at the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.

The first deal — the one for which a closing had been considered possible by the end of this year — is for the development rights on a rectangular field of 24.6 acres off Manhanset Road for about $2.4 million, with the town paying one third of the cost, $720,000, using funds derived from its local 2-percent open space preservation tax on real estate transfers.

A second deal expected to close in 2012 is for a 57.1-acre parcel to the south of the smaller field bordering Manhanset Road. The price is $4.85 million, with the county paying 70 percent and the town 30 percent. That parcel does not include the well-known site of the manor windmill on Manwaring Road, where the manor operates a farm stand in season.

Historian Mac Griswold of Sag Harbor, the director of archival research at Sylvester Manor, said she couldn’t imagine that a title search won’t be concluded by the end of 2011. “I’m pretty upbeat about it,” she said of the search’s results.

All the manor’s owners and property transfers are well documented, she said. “There are deeds and wills and we know where they are,” she added — all in the Suffolk County Surrogate’s Court. She said research into the records “is daunting at first” and might be a challenge for a title company researcher “not used to dealing with this kind of historical research.”

According to Ms. Griswold’s research, all of Shelter Island was purchased from the Manhansett Indians in 1651 by four merchants, including Constant and his brother Nathaniel Sylvester. They developed a plantation to provide supplies and provisions for a sugar plantation they operated in Barbados. Nathaniel was the only one who settled on Shelter Island permanently.

Ms. Griswold has written a book about the manor, “Slaves in the Attic: Rediscovering a Long Island Plantation,” which Farrar, Straus & Giroux will publish in the spring. She will read her chapter on the Manhansetts at this weekend’s Plant & Sing festival at Sylvester Manor, its fourth annual arts and food festival. Her reading will be on Saturday at 12 noon in the literary tent at the manor’s Watermelon Patch. (For information about the festival, go to plantandsing.com.)

Documentary and other evidence indicates the plantation relied on slave labor. Traces of what may have been an African-style structure have been found on the grounds near the manor house. Nathaniel Sylvester’s 1680 will lists 24 slaves, an unusually high number in the North, according to Ms. Griswold. They worked as skilled laborers.

The 13th and last “Lord of the Manor” to live on the property was Andrew Fiske, a Sylvester descendent who died in 1992, leaving his wife Alice a life tenancy. When she died in 2006, Eben Ostby, a California resident, inherited it and developed the plan for its preservation as a non-profit farm — a plan that is now in the process of being implemented. Mr. Ostby will transfer title of the fields for which the development rights are to be sold to the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, Inc. so that it will receive the revenues from the sales.

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