Reporter editorial: Protect Island preservation funds

JULIE LANE PHOTO View from Vincent Novak’s backyard overlooking Fresh Pond.
View from Vincent Novak’s backyard overlooking Fresh Pond.

One of Shelter Island’s most successful and beneficial government programs has been the Community Preservation Fund’s purchase of open land to preserve it from development forever. An appointed Advisory Board vets properties to buy through the CPF, which is funded by a 2 percent tax that individuals pay when purchasing East End properties.

Those purchases have kept wide swaths of our Island green and aided the aquifer that provides our drinking water by protecting it from sitting under structures and septic systems.

Part of the traditional policy of the CPF has been to turn thumbs down on developed properties offered for sale.

The Town Board, which makes the final decision to buy or pass on what the committee has recommended, is now faced with purchasing a developed .54-acre lot on Fresh Pond. The CPF Advisory Board unanimously recommended to the elected officials not to use preservation money to buy the property, which has a house, garage and septic system. (The owner, Vincent Novak, has found a contractor who will take down the structures pro bono.) If the Town Board rejects the CPF Advisory Board’s unanimous recommendation against the purchase, it will be the first time in history its advice has been rejected, according to Chairman Gordon Gooding.

The Fresh Pond Neighbors Association and others have urged the board to use CPF funds and go against a precedent that’s never been breached.

The deal becomes more complicated, it seems, by the day. Originally, Mr. Novak’s property was offered to the town at the price it had set at an assessed value of $819,000. If accepted, it would be paid to Mr. Novak as $719,000 cash and acknowledgment of a $100,000 donation of property value to the town. This donation would offset Mr. Novak’s capital gains tax, netting him approximately the same amount as if he was paid $819,000.

Surprising many at a public hearing two weeks, ago, it was said the Peconic Land Trust might — repeat might — become involved and, if they pitch in, the CPF bill will be lower. But Mr. Gooding also raised the issue of hidden costs to the deal, noting that after the structures are razed, the soil may need remediation with a price tag that is presently unknown.

Advocates for using preservation money cite the importance of having a septic-free property and an attractive park with extra access to the Pond for all Islanders. In addition, if the Pond has to be dredged for remediation of the water quality, the property is an ideal staging area for that project.

We agree, it’s a great plan to raze the structures and have the benefits stated above in place. What we can’t agree with is using money dedicated to preservation for this project because it will trigger a dangerous precedent.

As resident Ed Barr eloquently stated before the Town Board September 7, the CPF can not be “a honeypot” that this board and future boards can dip into whenever it wants to fund projects.

Buy the Novak property, raze the structures and preserve it? Yes. But keep hands off the CPF.