Indiana meets the Hamptons

Indiana meets the Hamptons By Gloria Joseph July 21, 2013 Does it seem strange to hear that a first time home buyer in the Hamptons might rationalize her choice to buy on the East End by saying: it reminds me of home? In my particular situation, “home” is Indiana, where I was born a half century ago, but reality is, Manhattan’s been home for half that period. So, what compels me to state my motivation for purchasing a home in the village of Southampton was that it put me in mind of the Midwest? Just drive north from the village beyond County Road 39 along David Whites Lane and suddenly farmland envelops you. On the left, clearly cut rows hide green vegetation protecting its bounty; on the right an open field of sunflowers sway in the breeze. Next up is a large farm stand with a tractor parked at its entrance and beyond there’s an equestrian center with its tidy white fences of parceled-out riding arenas. This East End of Long Island is a respite from the claustrophobic canyons of Wall Street, summer’s unrelenting heat roasting asphalt sidewalks, and the cacophony of horns whose decibel level has increased now that New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has admitted no amount of police manpower can silence those horns. Out here, silence can be had. The white noise of a crashing ocean wave provides an audible massage for the weary-eared, and then there’s the naturally rugged beauty of this rural countryside, all within easy reach of a waterfront, be it pond, lake, bay or ocean. The light, the openness of land and the solitude all beckon me to venture east, along with the horse lovers, organic foodies, celebrities, and artists. So how can this land, a limited resource, be protected for its historical beauty and quality soil and still accommodate all those who want to be out on the far eastern edge of Long Island to reap the bounty of this environment? The answer is, it’s a very delicate balance. On one hand, buying a piece of property and making improvements on a structure and the land it self, is a tried and true way to build equity, the ultimate American Dream. On the other hand, IF each new homeowner can justify his/her purchase based on a right to do so, then one has to overlook the fact that the land might be better used for another purpose, such as protection of a watershed, or to continue as an expanse of field that lays near a fragile wildlife habitat. And then there’s the historical legacy of it as farmland. Consider this economic fact: Suffolk County is the leading producer of agricultural products in the state of New York, and that’s compared to the dairy industry upstate or the fertile Hudson Valley counties of Duchess and Columbia. This balancing act between home ownership versus taking land that may be most valuable in its natural state, in essence makes the quality of the land that is being built upon more important than the structure being erected on it. Add to this mix the inheritance tax that is part of the Internal Revenue Service’s assessment of the Estate Tax, and it complicates the matter exponentially. How does one determine the best use for a piece of property? According to David Gilmartin, a real estate attorney with Farrell Fritz LLP in Bridgehampton who served as a former trustee on the board of zoning for the Town of Southampton, tax policy calls for looking at land and its valuation at is “highest and best use.” “So, take a farmer who has 100 acres and he dies and the kids want to stay on to farm. The IRS comes in to have the property appraised at the ‘highest and best use’ and it’s determined that would be to build 100 single family residences at $1 million a piece versus receiving the estate tax of 48 per cent to continue farming.” It was a scenario very similar to the one described by Gilmartin that provided the impetus for the formation of the Peconic Land Trust (PLT) in 1983. When John v H. Halsey returned to his hometown of Southampton from California’s Bay Area at nearly 30 years old, he brought with him an ability to trouble shoot for non-profits as an organizational development consultant for the San Francisco Foundation. Alarmed at the “for sale” sign on the farm next door to his family’s Wickapogue Road home, Halsey learned his neighbors were forced to sell in order to pay the Estate Tax on the land. Armed with knowledge of how to organize a non-profit, Halsey thought he’d try to find other solutions for long term farming families who wanted to stay on the land. That’s when the twelfth generation Southampton native got busy and crafted the formation of The Trust. The PLT’s mission is to conserve Long Island’s working farms, natural lands and heritage for communities now and into the future. In its partnerships with landowners and local governments, community and partner organizations, the trust oversees some 6,000 acres of farmland and hiking trails, as well as 4,000 acres of preserves and natural lands that protect watersheds, ocean fronts, wildlife habitats and scenic vistas. Halsey recalls how Southampton circa early 1960s “from the hospital to Wickapogue and out to Mecox Bay, there were probably 1,000 acres of farmland when I was growing up.” Nowadays the only real visible open space is the wildflower field at the juncture of Old Town Road and Wickapogue Road. “So, I loved this place, just as much then as I do now,” said Halsey, his silver hair hiding a boyish grin on his 61-year-old face. “But to me, it’s important to keep this historical open space for farms and structures that relate to it. So, it’s in my blood. This place is in my blood. I feel responsible to it. We have the best soils here. To continue our history of agriculture is part of the heritage of this place and I feel an obligation to ensure it remains,” said Halsey. As a kid, Halsey got his hands on some working papers, and convinced relatives he was big and strong enough to sling irrigation pipes on the Halsey Farm on Cobb Road. “Hauling that pipe across potato fields was fine when there were three of you working because we could take two pipes each time. But, with two people, only one pipe could be hauled.” He said that experience taught him farmers are independent, self-sufficient and practical. When it’s raining out, you do the plumbing and carpentry projects. The Halsey name shows up all around this region: take Halsey Lane at the base of Water Mill’s historic watermill or the Thomas Halsey Homestead on North Main Street, not to mention the 53 separate listings for Halseys in the current Peconic Telbook. Halsey has a fierce determination to continue on the family heritage; his family was one of the original fifteen who arrived in Southampton in 1640. Like land trust alliances the world over, the premise of the trust is to assist landowners in keeping working farms in operation. One example of a recent collaboration the trust engaged in was when Isabella Rossellini, a Bellport resident for more than 25 years, purchased the South County Farm from the Marist Brothers in January 2012 with a conservation purpose in mind. Rossellini then donated 20.8 acres as a conservation easement on the 28-acre plot so that an organic farm could be established there in the hamlet of Brookhaven. Ms. Rossellini said her motivation for the donation was “to expand access to local food” in her community. Halsey said after thirty years in existence the trust has now developed a strategy of reaching the landowner before the developer does so. He reasons that if local farmers or conservationists or simple families who desire to keep the land within its relatives’ hands, then they need to know ALL of the options available to simply selling it outright to heave a home built upon it. Last December, when I was writing checks at my real estate closing, I thought the two percent land tax I paid to the Community Preservation Fund went to the Peconic Land Trust for conservation purposes. Wrong. Suffolk County actually collects the land transfer tax then distributes to the East End town in which the purchase was made. For me, my monies went to the town of Southampton, which is bordered on the west along Manorville Road and Bridgehampton on the east with the Peconic Bay its northern boundary and the Atlantic Ocean its southern shore. It’s worth it to me to invest in a place with open fields and tall bright orange Stargazing sculptures that help me adjust my attitude as the Ambassador streams along its first southern route that will soon provide a glimpse of blue when it cruises over the Shinnecock Canal onto points east. I breathe in deep and count my blessings.