One of the biggest sources of pride for Southold Town residents is that the town has kept its natural beauty through land that has been preserved and saved from development.
Much of the credit for that belongs to Melissa Spiro, who has served for decades as the town’s land preservation coordinator and has ensured the protection of more than 3,000 acres during her tenure.
Several months ago, Ms. Spiro informed the town of her decision to step down. She will officially retire Feb. 2 after a career of 35 years with Southold Town.
Despite her departure from Town Hall, Ms. Spiro said she’s “not going anywhere” and will stay in Southold Town, where she currently lives.
“There never is a perfect time [to retire], but it’s just a decision that I made,” she said. “After a while, when you’ve been here for a good amount of time, it’s good to pass the torch.”
Ms. Spiro began her career in 1988 with the town planning department, working under the direction and mentorship of its former director Valerie Scopaz.
“Valerie and Tim Caulfield from the Peconic Land Trust and I worked very closely on what now we call conservation subdivisions, but back then we were just sort of trying to do preservation, together with subdivisions,” Ms. Spiro said. “I learned everything I know about land preservation from the two of them.”
In 1999, Ms. Spiro was moved over to the town’s new land preservation department, which was formed, after the establishment of the Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund.
She’s been there ever since.
Timothy Caufield, who retired last summer after over 30 years with Peconic Land Trust, remembers the relationship with Ms. Spiro as “mutually beneficial.” He said she also helped him learn and understand what the town was doing with preservation.
Mr. Caufield said her strength was her attention to detail in every project she worked on.
“She really could persevere through whatever obstacle,” he said, “They’re all challenging in different ways, and she has the ability to work through all of those challenges and bring so many of the efforts across the finish line.”
Town planning director Heather Lanza, who has worked with Ms. Spiro for 15 years, said she is “very knowledgeable about the farms in Southold Town and farmland preservation.”
“Land preservation is work that requires a unique set of skills that Melissa has honed over the years. You need sensitivity, especially when dealing with families who have owned their land for generations,” Ms. Lanza said. “You also need a deep understanding of the logistics behind what it means to preserve land, especially farmland, because the town only buys the development rights; the farmer keeps the land.”
Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said the community owes Ms. Spiro a debt of gratitude for her efforts.
“The land preservation department exists because of her,” Mr. Russell said. “It was the house that Melissa built … Melissa was not only successful at achieving the towns goals, she took the preservation program so much farther than anyone could have envisioned.”
Former Town Trustee Peggy Dickerson, who worked on the land preservation committee, said she was blown away by all the hard work it has done under Ms. Spiro’s leadership.
“As a mother and a grandmother of five, it’s wonderful to know that our town has done so much for our future generations,” she said.
Councilwoman Sarah Nappa, the Town Board liaison to the land preservation committee, said Ms. Spiro’s work for the town has been “incredible.”
Ms. Nappa recalled Ms. Spiro’s efforts in 2021 on the purchase of development rights and easements on nearly 107 acres of land from Mattituck Farm Holdings on Oregon Road, Alvahs Lane, Depot Lane and County Road 48 in Cutchogue. At the time, it was described as the largest farmland development rights purchase made to date under the town’s program.
“I just want to express my thanks and gratitude to Melissa for just really devoting her life’s work to this,” Ms. Nappa said. “It is really amazing how selfless she’s been.”
Asked to name her favorite project across the years, Ms. Spiro couldn’t choose. “They’re all too important to pick just one,”
“I certainly get more satisfaction, I think, out of some of the open space that we’ve preserved, that have turned into trails, like Sound View Dunes,” she added. “We purchased that from Jackie Bittner way back when and when people come and say, ‘Oh, I found this fabulous trail,’ I get a lot of satisfaction to say, I know I did something to make that happen.”
Ms. Spiro doesn’t know who will take her role in the land preservation department, but she hopes the town will continue its important work.
“I think many people want to come to Southold,” she said. “It’s a wonderful spot, and we want to keep it so that it doesn’t look like everywhere, USA, or everywhere, Long Island.”
Mr. Caufield said Ms. Spiro’s legacy is all around us.
“It’s everything we all see when we drive around our community, which is still a very beautiful community,” he said. “The community character that we all enjoy and benefit [from] is there in very large part due to Melissa Spiro. I think I can say I don’t think there’s anyone in the last 30 or 40 years who has done more to preserve our community character.”