When Southold Town agreed to buy Julia Sill’s 24-acre homestead near Pipes Cove in Greenport five years ago, they put in place the final piece of the town’s network of 600 acres of preserved land surrounding the cove.
As part of the $538,000 agreement, Ms. Sill was able to stay in her house through a life estate on the property until she passed away this November. Now, with the house falling into the town’s hands, some Southold land preservationists are considering whether the property would make a good nature center.
While the initial approval for the Community Preservation Fund acquisition said the house would be torn down upon Ms. Sill’s death, towns on the East End are allowed to maintain nature centers in existing buildings on preserved land, as is the case with the buildings at Downs Farm Preserve in Cutchogue.
Southold Land Preservation Coordinator Melissa Spiro told the Southold Town Board at their Dec. 15 work session that, if they plan to keep the building, it will need to be winterized so the pipes don’t freeze. If they don’t plan to keep the building, they will need to pay $30,000 to $40,000 to tear it down.
Jim McMahon, the town’s former director of public works, who now works on special projects for the town, said he’s been in touch with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, who may have grant money available to help make the building suitable for public assembly.
Town Engineer Jamie Richter said some floor joists would need to be sistered to new joists to meet the load capacity required for public buildings, and the building would need to be made handicapped-accessible.
“It would cost almost $140,000 to renovate it, if we knew what we were going to renovate it to,” he said.
The property also has a two-acre freshwater pond and a meadow, and is bisected by the Long Island Rail Road’s Greenport line. On the far side of the railroad tracks are three collapsed wooden buildings and a cement silo that would need to be torn down, though the town will need to negotiate access to those buildings with the LIRR.
Current Public Works Director Jeff Standish said he’s in favor of having a nature center at that site.
“Around that area, we have so much property, if you’re ever going to do a nature center, that’s the spot,” he said. “If it’s going to cost us $600 to $700 to heat it through the winter, we need to really look at it. Just to knock it down for $30,000 to 40,000, I don’t know if that’s where it’s at. I know the Sill family would like to see it stay.”
Town GIS coordinator John Sepenoski, who is very involved with nature work in town hall, said he’s not sure if that building is ideal for a nature center.
“If you look through Jim’s packet of all those uses that we’d like there… I’m not sure if the old Sills farmhouse is the best structure for that,” he said. “When you put all the ideas on the table, it might be better to develop a floor plan from scratch.”
Mr. McMahon added that programs offered by Group for the East End at Downs Farm Preserve are often filled beyond the capacity of the building there.
Town Board members were agreeable to keeping the building at Pipes Cove standing through the winter while they decide that to do.
“I’d hate to see it knocked down if it’s a perfectly good building,” said Councilwoman and Justice Louisa Evans. “We could develop a real plan for how it will be used, and at what cost to the town…. Let’s find the programs that fit with the building we have.”
“My thought was to not knock the house down right away,” added Mr. McMahon.
“I think that’s a wise decision,” said Councilman Bob Ghosio.
Town Supervisor Scott Russell, ever the joker, had other thoughts in mind.
“It looks a little small to be a justice court,” he said. [Southold is currently working on plans for a justice court] “Pay your bail and enjoy the scenic vista.”