When cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder donated 14 acres in Bridgehampton to a conservation group, the South Fork Land Foundation, he did so as a way of preserving the land and preventing development.
Now a threat by that foundation to sell the property on Highland Terrace for development is not only a slap in the face to Lauder, it could also undermine efforts to preserve undeveloped land on the East End by scaring off those who might support conservation with donations of money and property.
Had Lauder wanted to risk the valuable acreage being developed, he could have left it to his heirs or sold it to the highest bidder. Instead, he wanted to do his part to keep a balance between open space, farmland and residential construction. That's why the statement by the Peconic Land Trust, of which the South Fork Land Foundation is a subsidiary, that it would reluctantly consider selling the parcel is misguided.
The trust says it has the right to sell the parcel if the money raised would further its efforts to keep more land in the hands of farmers. With this veiled threat on the table, the Peconic Land Trust has proposed an alternative: The Town of Southampton should pay millions to, in essence, re-preserve the land. The trust would use money from the Lauder property sale to buy 60 to 100 acres of farmland being eyed by developers in a reignited second-home market. The foundation would then sell that land at prices below market value with the restriction that it continue to be used for agriculture.
Such a transaction would almost certainly undermine public support for the Community Preservation Fund, from which the town would draw the money. The five East End towns, through a 2 percent mortgage tax, have raised more than $840 million to protect land, with more than 10,000 acres banked in the past 15 years.
The Peconic Land Trust argues that selling the Lauder land, whether to the town or developers, enables a greater good. Actually, the plan is likely to cause a greater harm.
Funding preservation with any kind of tax has its detractors, especially those who think the free market is the best way to determine the proper use of land. That's true even when the money garnered is handled in an angelic manner. If the special fund is used as the Peconic Land Trust wants, to protect land already put off limits by its donation to a preservation group, it could erode support for the larger Community Preservation Fund.
The decision will be made by the Southampton Town Board. Not one member of a panel that makes recommendations to the board regarding the Community Preservation Fund voted in favor of this purchase. That was the right call. The town should not purchase the property. The only fair course is for the preservation group to do what Lauder had every right to believe it would, and keep the land from ever being developed.