Editorial: What the Tuthills truly want is to be able to stay

Members of the Tuthill family arrived on the North Fork in the mid-17th century, among the very first English immigrants to begin new lives here on extraordinarily fertile land bracketed by salt water.

And they are still here.

There aren’t many places on the Eastern Seaboard where families that arrived in the 1600s are still living on and farming the land they first came to. That this is true on the North Fork is a testament to the richness of this land, but also to the determination of families like the Tuthills to stay on it, generation after generation.

It is with this thought in mind that we look at the issue now before the Southold Town Planning Board. Members of the Tuthill family own two parcels along Route 25 and another two along Narrow River Road in Orient. The parcels, totaling 112 acres, are held under the family’s Oysterponds Holding Company.

The family has proposed that 94 acres of the property be preserved, while the remaining 18 acres be developed as 17 residential lots. A closer look at the proposal shows that, if you include non-buildable land such as wetlands, it will preserve more than 80% of the property.

Beyond the proposal itself is the family’s goal of having the approved building lots passed down across the generations. In other words, this is a plan to keep the Tuthill family in Orient — where they have pretty much been since the 1600s. This is a very worthwhile goal.

For this reason, this proposal needs to move forward. It’s in the family’s best interests, but also fits into the larger goal of saving as much of this beautiful place as possible, which, ultimately, should be the foremost goal of Southold Town government. The Tuthills’ presence in Orient, like the Wickhams’ presence in Cutchogue, where members of that family arrived in 1699, makes the North Fork a far richer place than anywhere else on the Eastern Seaboard.

Underlying the Tuthill subdivision proposal is an issue, which the Planning Board has to study carefully, involving another aspect of North Fork history: that this land was inhabited by American Indians for thousands of years before Europeans arrived.

Their long legacy here cannot be overlooked; they are integral to the history of the North Fork. Nor can we bulldoze it away, as if their long existence here is a mere footnote in a history book, little more than a point of nostalgia. The Planning Board has to answer the larger question: What do we, today, owe to the past?

In 2011, a professional archeology company conducted a preliminary study of the Tuthill sites as part of the application review. The study, required as part of the SEQRA process, was intended to determine whether these sites contained any historical Native American and archaeological remains, which have been found in Orient in the past.

In its reports, the company used the term “historic remains” to describe what was found. That phrase sounded like “human remains,” calling to mind Native American burial sites, and set off alarm bells. A reading of those reports shows no actual human remains were found, but the company’s use of that language raised a few red flags about this proposal.

The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is recommending additional site investigations, which would require deeper and more thorough digs. The Tuthill family may even have to reposition any potential building sites away from burial grounds.

Decades ago, an Orient farmer, amateur archaeologist and naturalist named Roy Latham, who was born in 1881 and died in 1979, conducted extraordinary digs in Orient and discovered physical evidence of a prehistoric native burial culture. He found the same burial culture on a hilltop in Jamesport — land that has since been preserved by Suffolk County. Mr. Latham is one of the great, largely unsung heroes of North Fork history.

The matter now before the Planning Board is about enabling the descendants of a historic Southold family to stay on their land. This is truly a worthwhile goal and must be achieved. With the right planning, American Indian history can be respected as well.