From 2003 to 2010, Fort Pond House, overlooking Fort Pond Bay in Montauk, provided one of only two public access sites to the bay, where nature groups and kids from the Montauk School did science projects and learned about the natural world. It was the kind of place where you could see blue spotted salamanders and spotted turtles if you sat still long enough, where you could join a writing workshop, learn to play the guitar or listen to a nature lecture.
Now, after three years of partisan rancor over Republican town board members’ decision to put the house on the market, the Fort Pond House drama could end soon.
Back in 2010, when Bill Wilkinson and his crew were elected to run East Hampton Town, the first thing they faced was a nearly $30 million deficit incurred during former Democratic Supervisor Bill McGintee’s scandal-laden term in office.
After East Hampton received special deficit financing from New York State, they had hoped to sell off the town’s assets in order to chip away at that debt. At first, everything they could think of was potentially on the chopping block, including Montauk’s commercial fishing dock.
But none of their proposed sell-offs angered East Hampton Democrats more than the proposed sale of Fort Pond House, purchased under then-Republican Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman’s administration for $890,000 in 2003.
The board voted 3-2 along party lines to sell the house in a work session in June 2010 without any advance notice to the public. Not long after, the building department condemned the nature center, and the nonprofit Third House Nature Center, the group which had run much of the nature programming there, filed a federal lawsuit alleging the center had been closed in an act of political retribution.
Three years later, Fort Pond House is still listed for $2 million with Halstead Realty here, with caveats that the building is anything but a turn-key investment for potential buyers.
“This 3.9 acre waterfront parcel on the beautiful waters of Montauk’s Fort Pond has possibilities for the creative buyer,” according to the listing. “A currently condemned pre-existing cottage as well as a separate garage structure pique the imagination.”
Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc has twice tried to introduce a resolution to rescind the sale of the nature center, and he tried again last Tuesday, but Councilman Dominick Stanzione, originally a proponent of the sale, said he might consider voting to rescind the sale if he’s given more time to think about it. Mr. Stanzione abstained from the last vote Mr. Van Scoyoc brought to the floor.
Larry Smith of Montauk gave an impassioned plea to the board at this Tuesday’s work session to reconsider the sale.
“This is not a good business decision and it’s not part of a plan,” he said. “To sell this gem is to say to the community ‘we lost. It’s all about money. Montauk is just another place where only money talks.'”
Councilwoman Theresa Quigley told Mr. Smith that she’d been told by a member of the press when the house was first put on the market that “never once was there ever an event that was listed there. Buildings and grounds people said they have never seen anybody there and never had anybody call to use it.”
Ed Johann, a carpenter and volunteer who helps to run the Third House Nature Center, said in 2010 that his group handled the scheduling of events at the house, and approved non-commercial educational, cultural, environmental and history programs there.
“This house has nothing much to do with solving the problem. If something gets sold during an economic crisis, we’ll never get it back again,” he said at the time.
“I want more time,” said Mr. Stanzione when asked to vote on a resolution proposed by Mr. Van Scoyoc on Tuesday.
“I think time is up,” countered Councilwoman Sylvia Overby.
“If you want my vote, time is not up,” said Mr. Stanzione.
“I’m not sure you have that vote in the bag,” Ms. Quigley told Mr. Van Scoyoc.