Borrowing may not be needed for 2nd Sylvester Manor preservation deal

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | Sylvester Manor farmhands at work during spring planting in 2011.

Suffolk County and the Town of Shelter Island probably will close on a deal to purchase the development rights on a 55-acre parcel on Manwaring Road in November or December, Supervisor Jim Dougherty announced at the Town Board meeting Friday.

And just maybe the town won’t have to borrow to pay it’s $1.404 million share.

Last Friday, September 21, Mr. Dougherty said the county had just informed him it would not require a federal grant to supplement its 70-percent share of the $4.682 million purchase price  — a condition that would have stalled a closing. “This is very good news,” Mr. Dougherty said in a prepared statement. He reported that county officials were initiating the closing process, which typically takes a month or two.

As for the town’s share, he said then that the current balance of the town’s Community Preservation Fund (CPF) was $1 million and the town would have to borrow to make up the difference. The borrowing would be supported by future 2-percent fund revenues, not property taxes, the supervisor noted.

But on Monday, September 24, he reported the town had received a larger than usual check from the county for its 2-percent CPF tax revenues for August: $112,000, bringing the fund’s total to $1.1 million with two monthly revenue checks to go before a closing.

The pending deal will bring the current preservation effort at Sylvester Manor to 107.7 acres, including a 22-acre piece on Gardiners Creek preserved through land owner Eben Ostby’s gift of a conservation easement to the Peconic Land Trust in 2009; and a 26.4-acre field at the corner of Cobbetts Lane and Manhanset Road, the development rights of which were purchased by the town and county in August. The Sylvester Manor property is 243 acres total.

The August 8 land deal closed in Riverhead only after many months of delay over technical issues. It included two major transactions: the first was a gift of Sylvester Manor’s 26.2-acre “Big Field” from Mr. Ostby to the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.

After the new deed was filed with the county, 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 allowed the manor to retain title of the land — but only for agricultural use — and yet liquidate part of the asset to yield $2.389 million. Along with the proceeds of the pending sale of development rights on the 55-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.

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, Mr. Ostby — a founder of Pixar, the animation studio now owned by the Disney Company — 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.

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, dates from the mid-1700s and is referred to as “new” because it replaced an original house dating from the 1600s that burned in a fire.

For the county, part of the purchase price for the August preservation deal came from a $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  he reported this summer that the county would not share the savings it would achieved through the grant with the town.