Seal the roof, board the windows and hope to slow the inescapable decay of time.
Cash-poor Suffolk can play only defense with its vacant historic structures. Restoring a gutted World War I-era schoolhouse or an 1820 Greek Revival home with holes in its parlor floor -- at up to $2 million each -- won't fall to taxpayers as the county struggles with a projected $530 million budget gap over two years.
So officials in search of a solution have taken a page from long-standing programs in states such as Maryland and Massachusetts: Ask private parties to pay for the reconstruction and, in return, lease them the properties for next to nothing.
"It becomes a case of, 'OK, we have these houses, what do we do with them?' " said Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), a former New York State parks regional finance director who has a history doctorate. "We shouldn't just tear them down."
Horsley's legislation, passed in December, created a pilot program for five sites chosen by the county parks department's historic services division. Officials aim to seek bids this year for residential and even limited-business access to the properties under long-term agreements.
Meticulously restore the 1920s vernacular-style home on an old South Haven duck farm? You can live there for pennies.
Sink seven figures into the grand but rotting white Colonial at Hampton Bays' Hubbard County Park? Could be a good spot to run a bed-and-breakfast.
Genuine caretakers needed
"You're looking for partners in restoration, not someone who goes against the grain," said Richard Martin, the Suffolk parks department's historic services director. "It takes a unique person."
The county acquired many of its roughly 100 historic structures almost as afterthoughts, as parts of open space and farmland tracts purchased for environmental protection.
Some stand along lakes or at the end of long dirt roads, on some of Suffolk's most striking rural landscapes. But restoring those not already too far gone would cost considerably more than the county can afford.
Martin and the Public Works Department plan to write bid requests that ensure the five homes in the pilot program are repaired under strict guidelines to maintain period authenticity and preserve public access to surrounding county park grounds.
Interested parties don't necessarily need to be millionaires, proponents say, just careful contractors willing to give a lot of "sweat equity."
"That's a big investment," Horsley acknowledged. "But then Suffolk pays your rent."
The effort appears to be unique on Long Island. While Nassau County officials refused to provide information about its historic structures, a former parks supervisor said partnerships at some sites -- including estates such as Hempstead House at the Sands Point Preserve -- give oversight to nonprofit groups, but typically don't wholly rely on them for large-scale restorations.
"The ideal situation is finding someone willing to put up all the money, and they do exist," said Ian Siegel, a former Nassau deputy county executive under Democrat Thomas Suozzi. "But what's more realistic is some sort of agreement where the county matches what another group puts up."
Martin said Suffolk has about $300,000 a year in its historic services maintenance budget, cut by half from four years ago.
The fund recently covered a new roof on the 1820 Seven Oaks-Davis House in Manorville, keeping it from total collapse.
Fills pragmatic, artistic needs
But more than $2 million more is needed for a full restoration, including replacing the mahogany staircase handrail, rebuilding torn floors now bridged by plywood and completing all the other detail and utility work to make livable a structure that has been vacant for a quarter-century.
"All of this stuff has to be done in a very creative and, obviously, very careful way," said Joel Snodgrass, a historic construction expert from Huntington. He worked with Suffolk to craft its pilot program. "But it's a win-win because abandoned structures not only go down in flames figuratively, for lack of maintenance, but they go can down in flames literally from vandalism," he said.
Maryland's resident curatorship program is one of Suffolk's models. The state gives individuals who restore and maintain a historic home a $1-a-year lifetime lease.
Since 1982, about 60 state-owned homes, some dating to the 1740s, have received nearly $9 million in private investment, said Maryland's program manager Emily Burrows. "That's investment in properties that really would not be standing otherwise," she said. "A lot of these were pulled from the demolition list."
Suffolk County is bound by law from selling off structures on its parkland, so in difficult times, the pilot program may be the only way to get value from them, a lawmaker said.
"Making the bureaucracy of the county harmonize with a private group that may be interested in one of these properties has been no easy process," said Legis. John Kennedy (R-Nesconset), who helped Suffolk acquire an 1810 homestead included in the pilot program. "But out of sheer desperation, we're going to have to come along, whether we like it or not."
SUFFOLK PLAN TO SAVE HISTORIC SITES
Suffolk County is launching a pilot program to attract private parties to renovate and occupy its deteriorating historic buildings -- in exchange for long-term leases at discount rates. Five sites are in the program:
Location: 330 Cuba Hill Rd., Elwood
Acquired by county: 1986
Restoration estimate: $2 million
Trivia: Served as community's prime school space into the 1950s; last used by local art league a decade ago. Also called "Little Red Schoolhouse"
Location: Walter S. Commerdinger Park, Nesconset
Acquired by county: 2006
Restoration estimate: not available
Trivia: Has been home to notable local families such as the Blydenburghs
ROBINSON DUCK FARM HOME
Location: Robinson Duck Farm Park, South Haven
Acquired by county: 1990
Restoration estimate: $1 million
Trivia: Vernacular-style home is one of three on the site of an old duck farm
SEVEN OAKS-DAVIS HOUSE
Acquired by county: 1986
Restoration estimate: $2 million
Trivia: Sat on what was once one of Long Island's largest cranberry bogs; recent roof replacement prevented a full collapse
BLACK DUCK LODGE
Location: Hubbard County Park, Hampton Bays
Acquired by county: 1971
Restoration estimate: $3 million
Trivia: The large white Colonial once was General Foods chairman E.F. Hutton's private hunting lodge.
Compiled by Paul LaRocco