Reporter editorial for the week: The time is right for Manor

Representatives of Sylvester Manor went before the Town Board last week to ask for help.

The Manor has been moving forward rapidly over the last several months, with big ambitions and eager to take a place in the spotlight. The opening of the Sylvester Manor archives at an impressive exhibition hosted by New York University gave the Manor a morale boost and exposure to the wider world. With the prestigious opening at NYU came news that Eben Fiske Ostby, the Manor’s owner, is donating the historic house and grounds to the nonprofit Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, with the deal slated to be completed by the end of the year.

This builds on the momentum established last year when Mr. Ostby donated more than 83 acres of land to the educational farm. Under the direction of founder and special projects adviser, Bennett Konesni, and Executive Director Cara Loriz, the Manor has set in motion what they call a mission “to cultivate, preserve and share the lands, buildings and stories of Sylvester Manor.” This breaks down to organic farming, historic preservation and exploration, while running programs that educate the public on land conservation, the history of the Manor and showcasing local artists and talents.

According to Manor officials, the big ideas are far from castles in the air but solid strategies generating practical benefits to the Island. The plans for expansion have translated into more than $400,000 flowing in to the local economy, with business services, local contractors and residents’ salaries contributing to that figure.

To further the mission described by the Manor representatives, housing is needed for staff and program participants. Space is also needed for teaching and a Suffolk County Health Services-approved kitchen is required.

There’s just one problem, which is why Ms. Loriz and Mr. Konesni went before the Town Board. It’s simple, really, as Ms. Loriz put it: “Sylvester Manor is treated as a single residential property, which limits what we can do. While zoned residential, we are not a residence.”

The Manor has two options to pursue to reach its goals, Ms. Loriz told the board: Either subdivide or receive what’s called a “zoning overlay.”

Subdividing the property would be a disaster for the Manor and Shelter Island, Ms. Loriz said, and we agree. Subdivision means sprawl, building in forests with some trees dating back to the 18th century and putting other construction in view of public roads.

A zoning overlay is a flexible tool a municipality can chose to protect specific areas and encourage a certain kind of development while putting up stop signs to other development. The Shelter Island Town Board has the right to trigger a zoning overlay for the Manor and should.

Supervisor Jim Dougherty — a tireless champion of the Manor — and other board members voiced no opposition to the request at this preliminary hearing. Mr. Dougherty suggested that Manor representatives keep the board apprised of specific plans, which is also something the Reporter believes is a sound idea.

Our heritage, and educating our residents with living lessons from the past, must be preserved now and for future generations, and a zoning overlay is one step to attain that goal.