November 20, 2013

Discuss Parcel And Program

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A public hearing on the purchase of vacant land on the Napeague Stretch prompted harsh words from East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson earlier this month. He defended the open space acquisition program under his leadership.

But first, board members had to defend the purchase.

The town is looking to use $400,000 from the Community Preservation Fund, plus $350,000 from an anonymous donor to buy almost two acres of property on the south side on Montauk Highway in Amagansett. According to Scott Wilson, town director of land acquisition and management, the property, which adjoins already protected open space, is recommended for public acquisition because it features dune lands and is flood prone.

"The parcel adds to the character of the neighborhood in the area of Montauk Highway that is known for the secondary dunes that remain in pristine condition throughout the area," he said.

It's also partially within the LWRP Napeague Reach Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitat and contains DEC freshwater wetlands.

"For these reasons, not to mention the participation of a donor for a large percentage of the purchase price, this is a strong candidate for acquisition," he said.

Board critic David Buda wasn't so sure. During the public hearing, he questioned why the land was slated for inclusion in the CPF Plan and purchase at the same time. It's not a long-standing planned purchase, he pointed out.

Additionally Buda looked askance at the use of a private donor to fund almost half the price tag. It's adjacent to the Windward Shores co-op he said, wondering whether the donor is a neighbor looking to "sanitize" the area and whether the deal will just benefit a neighbor. What, if any, interest did the town-appointed CPF committee have in the land, he queried.

It was pointed out that the property came to the attention of the committee because it recently went on the market. Wilkinson reported the committee listed it as "a priority."

The price is "almost a steal," Buda acknowledged, continuing to voice skepticism about the donor's motivation.

The supervisor didn't contest the potential benefit to the adjacent landowner, but Councilwoman Sylvia Overby noted "Open space is a benefit to all of us."

"It wouldn't be a test of anybody's imagination," Wilkinson offered, "that if you had a two-acre open parcel on Napeague, you'd try to pick it up to keep it open."

Emphasizing the "great deal financially," Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc asked, "Why wouldn't we buy it, especially when we're sitting on $42 million?"

Noting his days at the helm were numbered, Wilkinson reacted. "We haven't been sitting on anything," he retorted. "We have moved on every property recommended by the committee. This campaign banter about us sitting on money is just ridiculous."

Asked for the latest update on CPF money this week, Wilson offered "round numbers." There's $47 million in the bank with $8 million encumbered. The town's spent about $5.6 million on closings with "a few still to come," he said. Another half million has been spent on stewardship expenses, the bulk of which covers the completion of the historic Lester house. Under CPF law, the town may use up to 10 percent of annual revenue on stewardship and management costs. So far this year, just two-percent has been expended.

According to data compiled by Assemblyman Fred Thiele, the author of legislation creating the CPF, revenue in East Hampton is up more than 53 percent – at almost $21 million for the first nine months of 2013-- over what was collected last year.

The five East End towns collect CPF money through a two-percent transfer tax on most real estate transaction. Thiele noted that at the 3/4 of the year mark revenues were on track to produce between $85 and $90 million across the region, the highest annual total since 2007, "before the Great Recession."

Later on the night of November 7 following the public hearing, the board voted to move forward with the acquisition. Councilwoman Theresa Quigley cast the sole dissenting vote. She feels the money could be put to better use elsewhere.


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