In Southampton, Preservation Fund Earns Big And Spends Big

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In 2013, Southampton Town took in revenues from the Community Preservation Fund real estate sales tax that approached its highest hauls ever. And it spent that money at a similar pace.

The town shelled out $39.4 million for land preservation efforts in 2013, about 65 percent of which went to the actual purchase of land or development rights from targeted properties throughout the town.

In all, $29 million went to land purchases. Another $5.9 million went to debt service on borrowing against future revenues for aggressive purchasing in years past. Slightly more than $1 million in CPF money went to paying property taxes for preserved parcels and for administrative and miscellaneous costs of running the CPF program, including the salaries of CPF office staff.

About $2.9 million went to school districts to offset lost revenue from properties taken off of tax rolls by preservation. The Riverhead School District was by far the largest recipient of such offset payments, known as PILOT payments, with $1.85 million. The Hampton Bays School District received about $758,000. No other district received more than $100,000.

While the figures coming from CPF may seem astronomical, the costs of preserving land are equally so. The town bought the rights or titles to 27 properties in 2013, totaling 113.8 protected acres, at a total cost of $22,494,866. When Southampton’s $2 million purchase of East Hampton Town’s half of the Poxabogue Golf Center property, which the two towns jointly purchased a decade ago, and the donation by developer Joe Gazza of slightly more than 20 acres are subtracted from the preservation total, the overall costs of preserving land comes out to about $220,000 per acre.

The average is skewed upward somewhat by the single most expensive purchase, by far, of four acres of wetlands and Shinnecock Bay waterfront on Meadow Lane in Southampton Village from James and Clariel Mulholland for $4 million, and by the purchase of another waterfront lot in Hampton Bays for $701,164 for slightly more than half an acre of land.

The most concentrated area of preservation, and spending, was focused on the Great Swamp area of northern Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor. The town purchased approximately 41.4 acres of land from five different landowners in the region, for a total purchase price of $7,384,560, or about $178,000 per acre.

Among the other large purchases, along with the Poxabogue deal, was the acquisition of development rights to 16.4 acres of land owned by the Corwith family in western Water Mill for $2.25 million, and 10.5 acres from the Andreassi family in North Sea for $1.94 million.

In the 15 years since the CPF was created, the fund has brought in $494.3 million to Southampton alone. The town has spent $457.5 million on 305 individual purchases, preserving 3,612 acres of land. Of that, 1,161 acres were farmland, 2,444 were woodlands or other open space and 6.8 acres were historical properties.

The Town Board last year approved borrowing up to $140 million against a decade’s worth of anticipated income from the CPF tax, but has yet to do so because the robust revenues generated by the fund each year have so far outpaced the demand for funds. That is largely due to the slow pace of properties becoming available for purchase.

Town Board members this week said that they wished they could move more quickly to preserve land and that they have started taking steps to spur preservation efforts.

“We’re pulling in so much cash that we actually can’t spend as much as we’d like to,” Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst told members of the town’s Agricultural Advisory Committee, who urged the Town Board to redouble its efforts to protect farmland. “We used to wait to be approached, but now we go out and solicit property owners and engage them on how they might become active sellers sooner rather than later.”

Ms. Throne-Holst said that the initial efforts seem to have stimulated some preservation, but that the town is taking a new look at how it goes about approaching landowners, farmers in particular. It is also looking to amend rules for such purchases that could make landowners more comfortable about selling land to the town, like sharing the appraisals of land the town orders and bases its purchase offers on with the landowners themselves.

Councilwoman Bridget Fleming lamented that the town had recently lost out on the purchase of nearly 20 acres of farmland in Water Mill, in a three-party deal it had been brokering with the Peconic Land Trust. The land was instead sold to the wealthy owner of an adjacent polo club, though the town has said it will still seek to buy the development rights off the property in the future.

In 2014, with an active real estate market expected to again drive robust revenues, the town says the time to get land off the development market is now.

“We know how important the passage of time is,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “What we don’t preserve today is lost forever.”

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