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Buy or pass? Town Board debates Fresh Pond land purchase



Vincent Novak’s offer last month to sell his .054-acre property on Fresh Pond to the town for preservation has triggered a fierce debate.

At Tuesday’s Town Board work session, Councilman Paul Shepherd accused those opposing the purchase of indulging in a “spaghetti throwing contest” by putting together a dozen reasons against acquiring the lot and seeing “what sticks.”

Those in favor of  purchasing the lot, which has a house and a garage, for $719,000 cash and acknowledgment of a $100,000 donation of property value to the town — to offset Mr. Novak’s capital gains tax — believe it will reap several benefits for Fresh Pond and the community.

The Fresh Pond Neighbors Association and others argue that the purchase is a unique opportunity to acquire property that is critical for community access to the water and future efforts for water quality remediation could easily be staged from the lot.

Also, using money from the Community Preservation Fund (CPF) to buy the property will help improve the water quality of the pond by eliminating a septic system. The CPF is funded by a 2 percent tax that buyers pay when purchasing East End properties and is in turn used to buy open space for preservation and fund water protection programs.

Mr. Novak has said he has a contractor willing to raze the structures and remove the septic system pro bono.

Opposing the purchase are the town’s CPF Advisory Committee, which vets properties to preserve, and the Water Quality Improvement Projects Advisory Board. Joe Denny of the CPF Advisory Board and head of the Shelter Island Trail Club, recently sent an email to more than 100 people urging them to lobby to reject plans to purchase Mr. Novak’s property, citing 10 reasons, including: Fresh Pond residents can upgrade septic systems with town grants to improve water quality; knocking a house down when the town is in a housing shortage is bad policy; and the cost is too high for a CPF purchase and would set a dangerous precedent in future property negotiations.

The idea of buying the property to improve access to the pond was one non-starter for Councilman Albert Dickson at Tuesday’s work session. He noted that the town already owns a 6-acre parcel and a .75-acre parcel on the pond, purchased with CPF money, which could be used to provide access to the water.

But Mr. Shepherd argued that “despoiling pristine property” for a road or a parking lot when Mr. Novak’s property is available didn’t make sense. Councilman Jim Colligan advocated for a Town Board “field trip” to view the town-owned lots.

After making a strong case, Mr. Dickson changed tack, saying, “I started with access, but I think that $719,000 for the elimination of a septic system is too much.”

“I would say that’s outrageous,” Mr. Shepherd said, and then tempered the remark by adding, “That’s something I might say. It’s hyperbolic to the point of my level.”

Gordon Gooding, chairman of the CPF advisory Committee, who has spoken before about his opposition to the purchase, reiterated his point that buying such a small parcel to preserve for the amount suggested was bad precedent. He urged the board to think clearly about what “access” means and to state clearly the board’s plan before acting.

There will be a public hearing on the matter at Town hall on September 7.

In other business: Supervisor Gary Gerth said the town will buy 40 North Ferry road, right next door to Town Hall, but the tenants renting there now will not be evicted and the property will be used by the town for parking.

Representatives from Port Jefferson Station’s Cullen& Danowski, the town’s accountants, gave a brief report to the board, noting that finances are “solid.” They noted that the overall fund balance is $600,000, and the CPF had $8.9 million on hand.

The report will be forwarded to the Hauppauge accounting firm Albrecht, Viggiano, Zureck & Company for the annual town audit.