First step in Sylvester Manor closing was donation of land

CARA LORIZ COURTESY PHOTO | At the closing in Riverhead Wednesday, August 8 with checks for the sale of development rights on Sylvester Manor farmland were, from left, Bennett Konesni; Scott Chaskey, vice president of the board of directors; Marie Manuella, the assistant to the manor’s executive director; and Sara Gordon of the Peconic Land Trust .

The historic Sylvester Manor land deal that closed in Riverhead on Wednesday, August 8 after many months of delay over technical issues included two major transactions: the first was a gift of the Manor’s 26.2-acre “Big Field” at the corner of Cobbetts Lane and Manhanset Road from owner Eben Ostby to the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.

Only after the new deed was filed with the county Wednesday, the parties proceeded to step two: the sale of the Big Field’s development rights to Suffolk County and Shelter Island Town through their respective open space preservation programs.

The sale allows the Manor to retain title to the land — and preserve it for agricultural use only — and yet liquidate the most valuable part of the asset to yield $2.389 million. Along with the proceeds of another pending sale of development rights on a 57-acre parcel just to the south of the Big Field, the Manor will realize more than $7.2 million — money that Mr. Ostby has said was crucial to the viability of the Manor and the family mission to preserve it as a working farm.

Originally encompassing all of Shelter Island, Sylvester heirs have sold off pieces of the Manor over the years so it now covers 243 acres hidden away in the Center along Gardiners Creek. The property includes a 1743 manor house and boxwoods that might date back to the 17th century.

The “Phase II” sale is expected to close sometime early in 2013, Supervisor Jim Dougherty has reported at a Town Board meeting. It was “a very exciting day for Shelter Island,” he said of the closing, and he thanked Eben Ostby and his nephew Bennett Konesni, who conceived of the educational farm as a way to sustain and preserve the family estate, as well as the “whole Sylvester Manor team” and county and federal officials.

Scott Chaskey, who runs the Peconic Land Trust’s Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett and is vice president of the Sylvester Manor Board of Directors, signed the papers accepting the land. Mr. Ostby, the heir of the estate who lives in California, was represented at the closing by attorney Wayne Bruyn.

The Manor received three checks at the closing, according to Sylvester Manor Educational Farm Executive Director Cara Loriz, who was among 15 people on hand at the County Treasurer’s Office Wednesday for the transactions. One check was from the county in the amount of $1,650,969; one from the town for 19 percent of the total cost or $456,843.96 (paid out of the town’s 2-percent open space tax fund); and one from the federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, a grant of $866,428. The checks were delivered to Mr. Chaskey and the Manor’s farm visionary, Mr. Konesni, by the Fidelity National Title Insurance Company rep, Bob Defrese.

“With the gift of this land,” commented Ms. Loriz the following day, “a non-profit dedicated to preserving and cultivating Shelter Island’s rural character and history now has the start of an endowment and owns a significant piece of property. This historic farm field is controlled not by a national or regional organization but by a local board of Shelter Island homeowners and East End farm and preservation advocates.”

Sara Gordon of the Peconic Land Trust, who helped facilitate the deal and attended the closing, commented Thursday, “The marvelous fact is that, due to Eben’s and Bennett’s extraordinary vision and Eben’s generosity, the non-profit Educational Farm now owns the Big Field — it is title holder to 26.2 acres, and through the partnership with the town, county and federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, the farm has preserved that land for agriculture and established an endowment. Pretty terrific!”

Phase II of the town-county preservation effort will cover the purchase of the development rights on a 57.1 acre parcel immediately south of the Big Field on Manhanset Road. The town will pay $1.4 million, 30 percent of the $4.682 million price, and Suffolk County will pay the balance.

Town Board members have expected they might have to float a bond anticipation note to cover the cost because, after Phase I closed, there would not be enough cash in the town’s 2-percent-tax open space fund to cover Phase II. The money is raised through a 2-percent tax paid by the buyer in most real estate transactions. All East End towns have a similar open space program.

Supervisor Dougherty reported at the August 10 Town Board meeting that there was about $800,000 remaining in the Island’s fund after Phase II. “We could possibly pay out of current balances” by the time Phase II closes in 2013 and avoid a bond, he said.