Preserving a piece of history on Shelter Island

Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island. (Credit: file photo)
Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island. (Credit: file photo)

When Eben Fiske Ostby deeded another 141 acres of land, including the Manor House, barns and other buildings, to the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm in June, it was his determination to keep the property from becoming a site for housing development that would trample on its historical significance. 

“Years ago, when I received the Manor and its lands as an inheritance from my uncle, Andrew Fiske, he didn’t leave any restrictions on what I could do with the property,” Mr. Ostby said. “However, I knew the property had been in the family for generations and so the inheritance had considerable weight for me.”

That responsibility dictated that the land remain largely undeveloped, and with the help of the Peconic Land Trust, he has succeeded in ensuring it will.

“I’m particularly proud of how the Educational Farm has become a centerpiece for the Island and has provided inspiration for a new generation of farmers and Island residents,” he said.

Community Preservation Fund Advisory Board Chairman Peter Vielbig called it a “miracle” that the land fell into the hands of an individual wedded to land preservation, adding that it is the largest single gift of its kind to the Shelter Island community. He pointed out that Mashomack Preserve resulted from contributions from individuals and corporations that made preservation of that land possible, but no single person has ever deeded this much land for preservation purposes.

Another landowner might not have had the “sensitivity” to assure the land would be preserved and could have broken it up and sold off parcels to developers, he said. He also credited Bennett Konesni, Mr. Ostby’s nephew and founder and special projects director at Sylvester Manor, with dedication to conservation that has resulted in the creation of the Educational Farm.

“What we really want to use the land for is to meet community needs around food, farming, education and culture,” Mr. Konesni said. “The land should be used to grow food and to explore the role that the culture of food plays in our lives — past, present and future,” he said. He explained that the term “culture of food” refers to “farming, cooking, eating, entrepreneurship, race, class, politics and the arts that are all woven together at Sylvester Manor and in everyone’s lives generally.”

“On a symbolic level, the burden and honor of stewardship has now been placed on the shoulders of the entire community,” Mr. Konesni said.

Had the land ended up in the hands of a developer, it might have resulted in 100 new homes and as many as 25 or more children attending Shelter Island School, Mr. Vielbig said. Studies show that despite taxes paid by homeowners, they don’t offset the costs associated with educating children who occupy those houses.

Now the question is how the land will be used.

Sylvester Manor Executive Director Cara Loriz said any use must be “consistent with our mission to cultivate, preserve and share the lands, building and stories, inviting new thought about the importance of food, culture and place in our daily lives.”

Currently, the Manor has about four irrigated acres growing crops to sell at its farmstand. Several months ago, Ms. Loriz told the town’s Irrigation Committee there were no plans to irrigate more than another 10 acres. As for the newly acquired land, she said it would be prohibitive to cultivate it for vegetable growing, but said there are plans to put in a well to provide water for animals.

That’s in line with thoughts that Board of Directors member Glenn Waddington has. He’s excited about the prospect of sheep again grazing in pastures, a return to a historical use.

“I just love the idea of using that open space as farmland” for livestock growth that would be “environmentally friendly,” Mr. Waddington said. You can trust farmers to use “best practices,” he said, suggesting that the raising of livestock that could provide meat for sale might be an excellent operation.

And what is particularly attractive to him about that idea is it’s an undertaking that could be easily tried and if it proved not to be effective, just as easily abandoned.

Mr. Waddington said the board has also had inquiries from people on the North and South forks interested in leasing land, but his fi rst choice is to pursue ideas that benefi t Shelter Island directly and, of course, stay within the Manor’s mission.

“Sylvester Manor was a mystery to me when I was growing up on the Island,” he said.

But now it’s land that’s open to the public to explore and appreciate.