Most of Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm in Cutchogue was preserved by Southold Town this week, despite an ongoing controversy over owner Lewis Edson’s use of a large barn on the property as a retail store.
The Southold Town Board agreed Tuesday night to purchase the development rights to all but five of Mr. Edson’s 27.8 acres for $60,000 per acre.
The five acres excluded from the purchase are the property along Route 25 that includes a house, the barn and associated parking.
Mr. Edson has been embroiled in litigation with the town for several years after the town cited him for using the 8,000-square-foot barn as a store.
A state Supreme Court justice ruled in favor of the town in 2009, and Mr. Edson subsequently applied to the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals for a variance that would deem the barn a farm stand. That application was approved. In order to be labeled a farm stand within the code, he would need to scale back the store to 3,000 square feet and 60 percent of the gross dollar sales from the shop would have to be of agricultural products grown in Southold.
Mr. Edson has since sued the ZBA over those restrictions.
Cutchogue resident Benja Schwartz was the only person who spoke at the public hearing on the acquisition.
“I’m for land preservation, but I see that as a conflict of interest,” he said. “The use of the farm stand is the subject of the litigation.”
Town Board member Al Krupski, who serves as the board’s liaison to the land preservation committee, said that the lawsuit never came up in their discussion of the application.
“The committee made its decision based on the location. It’s contiguous to other farmland. It completes a large block of [preserved] land,” he said. “In 100 years, is it still going to be in the current use, with the same owner?”
Town Board member Louisa Evans was quick to point out that the portion of the property that is the subject of the lawsuit is not part of the purchase.
More money for CPF
Southold is planning to enrich its Community Preservation Fund account.
The town hopes to purchase a total of six properties this year and will likely need to borrow money by August to cover the program’s costs, according to Town comptroller John Cushman.
In 2007 the town authorized borrowing $22 million for CPF purchases, but has issued only $12 million in bonds since then, according to land preservation director Melissa Spiro. During Tuesday’s Town Board work session, Mr. Cushman recommended issuing bonds for the other $10 million this August to take advantage of a low interest rate.
“If we do nothing and try to close deals in September, we’ll be out of money,” Mr. Cushman said.
“Essentially, your program is shut down and you’re rolling the dice as far as debt service payments for the rest of the year,” he added.
Supervisor Scott Russell agrees.
“The idea is to have money in the account each year so we don’t have to look to the general fund to cover debt service,” he said. “The reality is, it’s getting tight now with projects pending and it’s penny wise and pound foolish to not borrow money.”
The town has budgeted for $2.8 million in CPF revenue this year, and plans to put $2.4 million into a reserve fund to cover the annual debt service on all of the money the town has borrowed for CPF purchases, in the event that the town does not take in enough money in any given year to cover its debts.
Although the real estate market continues to show few signs of improvement, Southold’s first-quarter CPF revenue was $848,865 this year, up from $697,728 in the same quarter last year.
The CPF program lasts until 2030, and before then towns will have to pay back any debt incurred for land preservation purchases.
Land preservation committee member Ray Huntington told the board that he thought the town had been very conservative in its use of CPF money in the past.
“Borrowing is a tool that we can use for the benefit of the public, but it can also screw it up,” he said. “But we’re safe. We have both feet on dry land … We only have a small window to borrow where it makes any sense at all. If we borrowed in 2029, we would have to pay it back the next day, almost.”
Storm grant estimates in
Southold has received concrete estimates of potential FEMA reimbursement for cleanup work in the Hashamomuck Cove area hit hard by flooding and erosion during the nor’easter of Dec. 26, 2010.
FEMA estimates that cleanup at Town Beach, Kenney’s Beach, McCabe’s Beach and the end of Soundview Avenue will cost $475,242. FEMA will pay $356,431 and Southold Town and New York State will each pay $59,405. The project at Town Beach is currently awaiting DEC permits.
Laurel Lake REBID
A project proposed last fall to tear down an old dock and several concrete foundations at the Laurel Lake Preserve on Route 25 will be rebid this spring. The project, to be paid for by a New York State grant, involves carrying sections of concrete foundation out of the woods by hand because they cannot be reached with excavation equipment.
Southold is planning to set up a day or weekend later this spring when businesses and residents can bring paper documents to a town facility to be shredded for free.
If the town can collect 7,000 pounds of paper, it will not need to pay contractors who recycle high-quality office paper after they shred it, said solid waste coordinator Jim Bunchuck.
A date has not yet been set.