Resounding ‘Yes’ to $48M Bridgehampton Farmland Preservation Deal

Bridgehampton farmland
The properties at 181 and 305 Halsey Lane, Bridgehampton were listed with Bespoke Real Estate for $69.995 million in March 2023.
Courtesy of Bespoke

The word “ditto” has perhaps never been uttered so many times as it was during a public hearing on the preservation of 27 acres of Bridgehampton farmland Thursday afternoon.

Even with Southampton Town paying $30 million, it was clear just as soon as the hearing opened that all of the board members were ready to approve the purchase of enhanced development rights to preserve the open vista and ensure the property remains a working farm, and, as Supervisor Jay Schneiderman put it, “keep it from becoming a giant subdivision of homes.”

In a public-private partnership, the nonprofit Peconic Land Trust structured a deal to purchase the fee title on three parcels, located at 181 and 305 Halsey Lane, for a total of $48 million and to partner with the town to simultaneously buy the enhanced development right for $30 million, using money from the Community Preservation Fund. Meanwhile, another $18 million will fund the acquisition with private donations, mainly from neighbors who did not want to see the land developed and the viewshed lost.

The property, owned by descendants of Ray Topping, went on the market in April, for $69.995 million, making it the most expensive piece of vacant property on the South Fork.

This is Bridgehampton, one of the priciest zip codes in the country, and this is way south of the highway in an area where homes sell for tens of millions of dollars sometimes,” the supervisor said at the meeting on Thursday, Dec. 21. “We’re fortunate to be in a position to compete in this case with private development interest because we have CPF,” which swelled to approximately $200 million during the COVID-19 pandemic real estate boom as it is funded with a tax on most transactions.  

Once completed, it will be the single highest-priced transaction in the history of the Community Preservation Fund, Schneiderman noted. The unanimous decision, passed at the end of the six-hour meeting, allows the supervisor to sign the contract, which he hoped would be ready so that it could be one of his last acts as supervisor given his term ends in several days. 

Bridgehampton farmland
The properties at 181 and 305 Halsey Lane, Bridgehampton could have yielded multiple estates.Courtesy of Bespoke

Councilwoman Cyndi McNamara spoke of how the board has preserved smaller lots for $1 million or more, reverting to what it once was. “This is actually preserving something as it sits before it gets destroyed. It’s literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said, adding this is what the CPF was designed to do.

With a long agenda during the board’s last regular meeting of 2023, Schneiderman asked that the long list of people who signed up to speak not feel compelled to use their allotted three minutes at the podium (both in person and via Zoom). “Ditto,” he said, would suffice if they echoed what had already been put on the record, a seemingly necessary request as the meeting would go on nearly six hours.

Purchasing enhanced development rights means that not only will the property be preserved in perpetuity, but will also ensure the land remains in consumable food production, “keeping agriculture alive,” Kim Quarty, the land trust’s Director of Conservation Planning, told the board. 

Due to the restrictions being placed on the property, it cannot become, for example, a tree farm, a horse farm or a winery. The property is composed of silt loam and haven loam, “some of the best in the region,” Quarty noted.

“There are not many of these farms left on the South Fork, as our community continues to feel the pressure of development, and this farm is among the last of eight large unprotected farm parcels east of the canal,” she said. “Our community character and our productive farms are rapidly disappearing.”

Some may argue that much has already been lost. “It used to be farm fields as far as the eye can see,” Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni said.

The Peconic Land Trust will also explore selling the property to a farmer or farmers at a vastly reduced price per acre – around $25,000 — through a process that entails a Request for Proposals. There is also a mandate that the property cannot become fallow, according to Town Attorney James Burke.

Lastly, there is specific language in the easement that protects the vista — not even a hedgerow can go up around it. Not only is it important to the neighborhood that it remains open farmland, but it is rare in that there is also preserved farmland across the street. Nearly 100 acres that once belonged to the Toppings have been preserved over the years.

In addition to the dozen or so area residents that offered their “dittos” and thanked the town board, Peter Feder, treasurer of the Bridge Civic Association, said he hoped this public-private partnership hopefully will serve as a model for others in the future.

During the meeting, it was revealed that Lewis “Lew” Frankfort and his family, whose Ocean Road property abuts the Topping Farm, had donated a large portion of the $18 million. Known as the former CEO of Coach, he was one of the highest-paid CEOs who was not running a Wall Street firm. He also long had an appreciation for farmland, preserving eight of 20 acres he purchased for his home 20 years ago from the Topping family, who have been farming the area for 300 years.

Frankfort told the board, speaking via Zoom, of his admiration for John v.H. Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust, and his team. “Their dedication, their passion has been an inspiration to all of us.”

“You played a central role here too — personally putting up a significant amount of your own savings to make this happen. Thank you, sir,” the supervisor pointed out. “This is a great community benefit because of your actions.”

“It’s a win-win for everyone,” Frankfort added. 

Halsey, who also joined the meeting by Zoom, thanked the Topping family for their willingness to consider conservation, as well as the Frankfort family. 

“This wouldn’t be happening if this wasn’t for your steadfast support,” Schneiderman told him, acknowledging the private fundraising he had done.“It wouldn’t happen without you.” 

“Ditto, John, ditto,”  Councilman John Bouvier said with a laugh.

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