Bank might level nursery structures, divide parcel for houses

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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