Shelter Island moves ahead on Sylvester Manor preservation

The woods, fields, buildings and 18th century manor house (close to Gardiners Creek shoreline at lower right) at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island.
PETER BOODY PHOTO | The woods, fields, buildings and 18th century manor house (close to Gardiners Creek shoreline at lower right) at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island.

Helping the effort to take Sylvester Manor back to its agricultural origins, the Shelter Island Town Board on Friday voted 5-0 to proceed with the purchase of the development rights for 57.1 of the manor’s 243 acres. Shelter Island will pay $1.4 million, 30 percent of the $4.682 million price, and Suffolk County will pay the balance.

The purchase, which is expected to close before the end of the year, will restrict the use of the property to agriculture and forever bar its residential development.

The money will support the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, Inc., the non-profit organization set up by Eben Fiske Ostby, the descendent of the Sylvester clan who inherited the property from his uncle Andrew Fiske, and took possession after the last tenant, Mr. Fiske’s widow, Alice, passed away in 2006. Mr. Ostby is a movie animator who is a principal at Pixar, the animation subsidiary of the Disney company.

The foundation’s goal is to run the manor, a working plantation founded by Nathaniel Sylvester in 1652 that once encompassed all of Shelter Island, as an historic and educational site focusing on agriculture.

Formerly the private residence of the Fiskes, the manor is now in its third year of production as a working farm. It has yielded produce for its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscribers and for a retail stand operated in season from the field north of Manwaring Road on which the manor’s iconic windmill stands.

The Sylvester Manor Educational Farm intends to increase the amount of acreage in cultivation and to use the manor to showcase “the culture of food and farming in America,” according to a letter to the community that Mr. Ostby published in this newspaper in December.

“We will take the culture of food to a higher level by connecting people to the place where it’s grown,” commented Cara Loriz, the newly named executive director of the Educational Farm. She said several of the manor’s fields are in cultivation this spring,  planted in onions, potatoes, leaks and in rye. The fields have quaint names, she said, including “the Watermelon Patch,” “Blackbird Field” and “Hidden Field.”

Before long, the total of preserved land at the manor should total 107.7 acres. The town and county also intend to buy the development rights on a 28.6-acre parcel just to the north of the piece the Town Board formally agreed to preserve last Friday.

Supervisor Jim Dougherty reported at Friday’s Town Board meeting that a town and county offer of about $90,000 an acre for the development rights had been accepted.  The price to the town and county will be less because the county received a grant of $1,095,600 from the federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program to help with the purchase. It will lower the cost from $2,402,400 to $1,306,800, with $914,760 to be paid by the county and $392,040 by the town, according to the Peconic Land Trust. A closing is expected this summer, Mr. Dougherty said.

Another 22 acres along Gardiners Creek already have been preserved through an easement granted by Mr. Ostby to the Peconic Land Trust in late 2009.

The town will pay its share of the purchase price from its Community Preservation Fund, money collected through a two-percent tax on real estate transfers, paid by the buyers. The county’s share will come from the Clean Water Protection Program, which is funded through a one-quarter percent retail sales tax.

During a hearing on the 57.1-acre purchase Friday, Mr. Dougherty praised Mr. Ostby and his nephew Bennett Konesni as having been “wonderful” in working with the town and county to preserve the manor. Mr. Konesni has been overseeing  its transformation to a working farm; he has been living at the Manor House. Mr. Ostby’s principle residence is in California.

The supervisor also praised county officials for their commitment to open space preservation on Shelter Island and for providing the lion’s share of the funding in the current and pending Sylvester Manor development rights acquisitions.

Councilman Glenn Waddington added that, while he once was among the many East Enders who favored the creation of a separate county in eastern Suffolk, he now found it “incredible … how the county has helped” the Island save open space by providing 70 percent of the needed funds.

Sara Gordon, project manager of the Peconic Land Trust and a member of the Educational Farm’s board, explained at Friday’s hearing  that Mr. Ostby will transfer title to the 57.1 acres being preserved to the non-profit farm organization before the closing with the town and county. The proceeds therefore will go directly to the organization. The money will go into an endowment, according to Ms. Loriz, that will yield interest to help support farm operations.

At Friday’s hearing, Ms. Gordon read a letter from Mr. Konesni, who was out of town. He thanked the Town Board for its efforts, which he said “will support the preservation and cultivation” of the manor and allow “this original island homestead to flourish.” He said the manor had “a great year of food and family ahead of us” and it would not have been possible without the community’s support.

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