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July 6th, 2004

The Pirates of Peconic or “the Great Peconic Land Grab”

by John Herrick

Piracy has always been big business out here. Captain Kidd used East End real estate to bury treasure. Bootleggers made the East End a Mecca for malt. Now, at a million dollars and up an acre, the land is its own buried treasure.

And we’ve got some politicians who would like part of the action.

They came up with the Peconic Property transfer tax, two percent of every dime over $250,000 on every deed transferred to provide a community preservation fund.

That created a one hundred million dollar plus lottery in Southampton Town alone to spend to preserve the community, and more than another $60,000,000 from East Hampton, Shelter Island, the North Fork and Riverhead. But tickets don’t come cheap. Think about a million dollars to get a piece of the pot. Some winners are more likely to drive tractors than push pencils, since part of the goal is to preserve farmland. But the money goes to big players. One fundamental problem with this government welfare program is that poor people don’t own a lot of land, so the money goes mainly to rich people, who do own a lot of land.

History suggests someone around Bridgehampton got rich centuries ago by digging up a pirate who sort of took it with him. They’d buried some of his treasure along with him in Poxabogue cemetery. Fitting, since one of the neater community preservation deals consisted of Southampton and East Hampton anteing up $6,500,000 to buy the Poxabogue Golf Course.

The acquisition followed a dance to the death between Southampton and the developers who bought the gold course, I mean golf course, for about a million and half bucks in 1998.

Of course the other option would have been to turn the golf course into eighteen more MacMansions. The owners threatened to do exactly that after the town refused to permit renovations including mini golf. A lot of neighbors protested loudly about mini golf. The threat to put up new mansions sent them screaming. It looked like a hell of a fight, but some have suggested the whole stand off may have been a put up job, designed to end up exactly where it did. Certainly some of the complaining neighbors could have anted up enough to buy the place themselves in 1998 and saved the taxpayers a treasure chest full of money. But lots of people out here would rather complain than spend money.

Might have been better if the town had bought the land in the first place but “shudda, cudda, and wudda.” We’d all be rich if we’d bought land ten or twenty years ago. They were practically giving it away north of the highway then. And don’t knock all the builders. Land is raw material. Boards are easy to buy but land is hard to find. Over the last ten years you could also have made a fortune just buying new houses from guys like Barry Brown and Frank Gounaris, holding them and selling them.

Robert DeLuca, President of the Group for the South Fork, put the Poxabogue purchase in perspective. “It cost a lot of money but you have to look at it over the long term. In five years this will probably look cheap at the price.”

DeLuca was nowhere near as kind about the idea of turning the Westhampton Drag Strip into hundreds of adult housing units. He called that a bad precedent, rewarding recalcitrant owners with money.

Of course politicians love spending money so much that a lot is never enough. The transfer tax has raised more than $100,000,000 in Southampton Town alone but they have spent closer to $125,000,000. The town borrowed the difference. Southampton Town Supervisor?Ǭ “Skip” Heaney has been quoted as saying, with interest rates this low, “It’s almost like free money.” It won’t be so free anymore, with interest rates going up. Critics say the Community Preservation Fund is using taxpayers’ money to buy scenic easements for tourists and mansion owners. But the scenery brings people with money to the East End, to live and to visit.

Mary Wilson, Manager of the Community Preservation Fund in Southampton, says they have saved over 1,700 acres from development. That comes out to less than $75,000 an acre. Like Robert DeLuca says, that looks cheap at the price. Mary Wilson also managed the purchase of nine acres on the Atlantic Ocean in East Quogue for $4,000,000. It was the Pavilion Restaurant, until it burned down. It will now provide more parking and more access to the best beaches in the world, again money very well spent.

The development rights for the Wolffer vineyard cost $70,000 an acre. Not bad. Besides Wolffer Rose is a great summer wine.

The 2 per cent tax is such a hit that the sunset date has been extended to the year 2020. But it might be worth taking another look at this multi-million dollar lottery. Do all the winners have to be big-ticket holders?

Maybe a few vacant lots in the Springs, and Hampton Bays and Westhampton Beach could be added to the list. Maybe put out a few picnic tables. Create some mini parks. Places people can walk to. How many places do we have for our kids to go out here, besides parking lots, in the winter when the beaches are closed?

How about buying some rights-of-way. For example, a fence suddenly sprang up disturbing the view of the ocean from a favorite path near Poxabogue. Buying a little right of way would make it possible to see the ocean clearly again. A little more might even make it possible again to walk from Sag Harbor to Bridgehampton along a path, rather than on the highway.

So perhaps we could make that two percent bit of piracy or tax save some small places we can all treasure and use as well as big spaces for agriculture and even golf courses.

John Herrick

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