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Board goes private on land purchase — Fresh Pond site discussed behind closed doors

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO Vincent Novak asking the Town Board Tuesday to discuss his proposal to sell his property to the town in public rather than private.
Vincent Novak asking the Town Board Tuesday to discuss his proposal to sell his property to the town in public rather than private.

The Town Board changed the lead item on its Tuesday work session agenda concerning a land preservation proposal two hours before the one o’clock meeting. The board moved the discussion from a public airing of the matter to an executive, or private, session.

At last week’s work session, the board discussed the Community Preservation Fund Advisory Board’s (CPF) recommendation that the town not purchase property to preserve on Fresh Pond.

The CPF Advisory Board had turned thumbs down on an offer to buy the half-acre site owned by Vincent Novak that fronts on the pond because there is a house on the property. CPF policy has dictated that land purchased with CPF money, especially small parcels, should be vacant.

Money for the CPF comes from a 2 percent tax that buyers pay when purchasing East End properties and is used to purchase open space for preservation and to fund water protection programs. The CPF Advisory Board reviews possible purchases and makes recommendations to the Town Board.

At the urging of Gordon Gooding, chairman of the CPF committee, the board decided Tuesday to go to the private session due to a provision in the New York State Open Meeting law that states a condition to keep the public out of a governmental discussion is property acquisitions.

In a clarification of the Reporter’s print article of July 19, Mr. Novak’s property is offered to the town at the price it set, an assessed value of $819,000.  If accepted, it will be paid to Mr. Novak as $719,000 cash and acknowledgment of a $100,000 donation of property value to the town.  This donation will offset his capital gains tax, netting him approximately the same amount as if he was paid $819,000.

Mr. Novak told the Reporter he has contacted a local contractor who has offered to take down the house and a garage pro bono.

Last week members of the Fresh Pond Neighbors Association and others — including former Supervisors Hoot Sherman and Alfred Kilb Jr. — came before the board to ask it to reverse the CPF’s decision, saying the property should be purchased. Residents said the house could be razed, a cesspool removed and the land preserved as part of the effort to improve the quality of water in Fresh Pond.

Peter Grand, a co-chairman of the neighborhood association, argued that the cesspool might be the cause of some pollution leeching into the pond.

On July 19, two days after the proposal to reconsider the CPF board’s decision, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services posted signs warning swimmers that the pond, in certain areas, poses a health risk.

Mr. Novak challenged the board’s decision Tuesday to keep discussions private, quoting the law that says deliberations about acquisitions in executive session are allowed “only when publicity would substantially affect the value” of the property.

Mr. Novak said he was offering the town the deal to buy his property at a bargain — helping him with capital gains taxes and preserving the site from any development — and the meeting should be open to the public “unless you’re substantially going to increase what you’re going to give me.”

Councilman Paul Shepherd said going into executive session didn’t mean there was any “skullduggery.” Mr. Novak said, “I trust you Paul, and the board.”

In other business: Police Chief Jim Read said that his department and the town are seeking public input on a proposal to lower the town’s speed limit from 35 to 30 mph. The only area that would remain the same is the Heights, where the limit is 25 mph.

Chief Read said he had heard many complaints of speeding on the Island and lowering the limit could be a remedy.

Along with the speed limit, bicycle-riding safety was discussed. Supervisor Gary Gerth said he had met with Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) about bike lanes for the Island (see the Reporter story, “Safer biking,” July 5).

Highway Superintendent Jay Card Jr. said he had advocated for increasing the shoulder width on some Island roads since 2012 for bicycle safety, noting that in some places the space between the road and the shoulder is only a matter of inches.

Mr. Card reported that Suffolk County will be doing bulkhead work at Crescent Beach this fall and county officials have indicated there will be repaving of all county roads next year. A priority should be to widen West Neck road, which is “one of the most heavily travelled,” Mr. Card said.

The board agreed to a new survey of the town landing at Montclair Avenue. Mr. DeStefano Jr. said there has been serious erosion at the site and the purpose of a new survey is to discover “who owns what now?”

There has been a dispute among neighbors in the area and “a survey is a good place to start” to resolve it, Mr. DeStefano said.

Resident Howard Johansen asked why the town was acting now when it has been an issue for five years. “What has changed?” Mr. Johansen asked, adding that “there is no enforcement of the code or the laws in this town.”

Mr. DeStefano reiterated that a new survey would be an initial step in clarifying property rights.

The board agreed to set up town email accounts for members of town committees. Currently, members are communicating about town business via their personal emails and this will leave the town open to violations of privacy if the emails are requested by the invocation of the Freedom of Information Act.