Editorial: Saving the manor

Sylvester Manor’s preservation is so important to Shelter Island’s future that any hint of a bump in the road is news.

It was just a little disturbing to learn from Supervisor Jim Dougherty last week that Sylvester relatives in Pennsylvania had complicated a title search that is necessary to close two pending deals to preserve about 80 acres in two parcels at the manor. The deals will raise over $7 million to create an endowment for the non-profit Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.

It was a little more disturbing that some county legislators are grumbling a bit louder these days about the cost of land preservation.

The first issue, as troubling as it might seem, doesn’t amount to much. No one has ever formally challenged manor heir Eben Ostby’s title to the property. Some vague issues have been raised over the course of the years by distant relatives; that’s nothing new. The grumblers have never articulated any kind of coherent argument, much less a legal challenge. Those involved with the manor preservation effort aren’t concerned that these musings from afar will cause any roadblocks.

More worrisome were the closer-to-home musings of a few county legislators when they recently questioned spending millions to preserve open space in the current economic climate. Their public hand-wringing has proven just as academic as those family rumblings: all but one legislator voted to approve both manor deals recently.

That was a relief. But soon after that vote to preserve the manor in cooperation with the Town of Shelter Island, they rejected an open space deal in Riverhead.

As Supervisor Jim Dougherty commented at a Town Board work session, there’s no better time to save open space than during an economic downturn, when real estate prices are slumping or stagnant. There’s never a better time to make an investment in a future free of sprawl and all the soaring municipal costs that go with it.

The preservation issue is critical on Shelter Island, where a tract of new houses in the manor would have an immense impact on the aquifer, traffic, the quality of life and the demand for public services.

Sylvester Manor is a remnant of its former colonial-era self, when it included all of the Island, but it still covers 243 acres in the heart of the community. Imagine what it would mean for this preservation effort to fail.

Made possible first and foremost through the generosity and remarkable vision of Mr. Ostby, the safeguarding of this historic property requires more than just his goodwill. It needs an unwavering commitment from town and county officials — and the public. The town is totally committed; the county officially on board, despite the grumblings; and Islanders — who by mid-December had helped push annual donations to nearly $250,000 to match Mr. Ostby’s $1 million (over four years) challenge grant — are beginning to realize they have a treasure to protect.

Islanders should not take it for granted. Donations are always needed. Check out the manor website at sylvestermanor.wordpress.com.