The owners of the old Fordham sawmill, a Town of Southampton Historic Landmark on Montauk Highway and Mill Road in Remsenburg, are trying to find someone to buy or rent it. The 19th-century former mill has been vacant since 2008, and the owners say restrictions set by Southampton Town, state and federal agencies are making it difficult to market the property, which was the first landmarked by the town under a program that today is almost 30 years old.
A second building at the site was used as storage for an antiques shop at the former sawmill, and before that had served as the Long Island Farmer’s Exchange. That building is not landmarked. The 1.22-acre property with the two buildings is currently listed for $1.35 million.
According to Westhampton Beach Historical Society records, the Tuttle family built the mill in 1859, powering it with water from a dam over the Speonk River until 1911, when E.O. Fordham—for whom the mill came to be named—purchased it and converted it to electric power. During this time the sawmill, which the historical society describes as a former “center of industry,” was also used to make carriages, wheels and coffins.
Morton French bought the property in 1985, months before it became the first landmarked building in Southampton Town. The family of Mr. French’s grandson, Peter Ring, and Mr. Ring’s brother-in-law, Mark Barauskas, took over the property recently. Now Mr. Ring and Mr. Barauskas are trying to secure permits to fix up or convert—the two have not yet decided—the 6,750-square-foot former sawmill, which once housed the antiques shop. After that, an artist rented the space as a studio from 2007 to 2008. When those tenants could no longer pay rent, they moved out, and the building began to fall into disrepair.
Mr. Barauskas said the mill’s restrictions as a landmark in addition to its proximity to state-protected wetlands—wetlands associated with the river that once powered the sawmill—has made it difficult to market either building. The two owners have not yet decided if they want to renovate the former mill before they focus more on selling the property, but did decide last year to take a proactive approach and began discussing options to renovate the building.
The former sawmill cannot be demolished since it is a landmark, but its uses are very limited. Currently, it can be used only for a “dry” use such as an antiques store or an art gallery. In 2007, the owners were in contact with a prospective renter who wanted to put an art studio in the space, but that deal fell through.
Mr. Barauskas and Mr. Ring want potential buyers or renters to also be able to use the building for other types of businesses such as a restaurant or cafe, for example, and to that end are trying to secure site plan approval to renovate the structure as well as a permit for a change of use. The two are not sure exactly how they want to change the structure. Because the building is landmarked, they will need permission from the Southampton Town Board as well as a certificate of appropriateness from the Town Landmarks and Historic Districts Board.
“Our hands have been tied,” Mr. Barauskas said. On October 14, he said, he will attend a Town Board meeting where a proposed code amendment will be discussed.
Dave Wilcox, of the town’s Land Management Department, explained that a provision in the Town Code that allowed the owners of landmarked sites to apply for variances for landmarked properties was accidentally removed during code revisions in the late 1990s. A public hearing next month will be dedicated to putting that language back in the code.
“We can use this as a tool to encourage property owners to restore historic buildings rather than demolish them,” Mr. Wilcox said, noting that action on the proposal may not come for another few weeks after the hearing.
“It’s this kind of floating pool of variables,” Mr. Barauskas said, noting that the town’s Community Preservation Fund also looked into purchasing the property and discussed it with Mr. Ring.
After an assessment, CPF manager Mary Wilson told the family that the town was not interested in purchasing the property, he said. Ms. Wilson did not return calls seeking further comment this week.
In the meantime, Mr. Barauskas and Mr. Ring have come under pressure to fix the property from the Remsenburg Association. Jim Mendelson, along with a handful of other members, expressed their concerns in a letter to The Press, which will run as a “Viewpoint” in the western edition this week, as well as to the property owners.
“Apart from the innate beauty of the building, the location stands as a gateway at one of the key entrances into Remsenburg and, as such, its condition is of particular concern,” the association said in the letter.“We’re happy that it’s a landmark, it’s a historic building,” Mr. Mendelson said in an interview this week. “We would like to see it look the way it should.”
The Ring family hopes that the property can be preserved, maintained and transformed into something that can be of use instead of two rundown buildings at the entrance to the quaint hamlet of Remsenburg.
To discuss ideas for adaptive reuse and rehabilitation of the property, however, the association is calling for an informational meeting with the public, the Westhampton Beach Historical Society, the property owners and town representatives.