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Former Morgan estate seeks big tax cut

Suffolk has recommended a secluded 440-acre mostly pristine

Suffolk has recommended a secluded 440-acre mostly pristine estate once owned by J.P. Morgan's grandson and now used to train horses for fox hunts become part of the county's agricultural district. (May 16, 2012) Credit: Photo by Google Earth Image

A secluded 441-acre estate once owned by the grandson of famed financier J.P. Morgan is edging toward joining Suffolk County's agricultural district, a move the Village of Asharoken opposes and one that could lead to slashing hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes the property owners pay annually.

The Suffolk County Agricultural and Farmland Protection Board voted unanimously this month to recommend that the former Morgan estate be included in the county's agricultural district.

The estate, owned by Eatons Neck Llc, is now called Sandpiper Farm and used to train fox-hunting horses.

In addition to protecting the right to farm on the land, the move, if successful, would bolster the estate's claim that the property should be reassessed from residential to agricultural.

If the estate owner receives the reassessment, its property taxes could plunge to a tiny fraction of the more than $1 million a year it now pays. Geoff Gloak, spokesman for the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, said an agricultural assessment would be "a very significant property tax exemption, perhaps as much as 99 percent of the value of the property."

The highest assessment allowed for agricultural land is $908 an acre, Gloak said.

The decision on including the estate in the agricultural district must still go before the county legislature and the state Agriculture and Markets Department. But the tiny village of Asharoken -- population 654 -- opposes the move.

Village attorney Kenneth Savin said Asharoken has held talks with estate representatives, but that it appears Sandpiper Farm "very well may be" operating against village code, which prohibits anything but residential uses.

"It may be the subject of civil litigation," Savin said. "It's obviously a concern of ours. We're not ignoring it."

Asharoken's village code was amended in 2005 and 2006 to prohibit agricultural uses in the village, noting that there has been no agricultural use of land there since 1939.

But Jon Santemma, a Syosset lawyer who is handling the agricultural-district application, said the property has been used for agricultural purposes since 1850, well before the village prohibition, and that the equine operation should be allowed because it predates the code change. Horse farming and related activity is by state law an accepted agricultural use.

In a 2010 letter supporting the estate's first petition to the county board for the agricultural district, Santemma wrote that the land had been continuously used for agriculture, including horse farming, for more than 140 years. He said that the taxes on the property had become onerous, reaching more than $1 million a year.

"The pressure to develop plus the extraordinary annual taxes are pushing this facility away from agricultural use and towards development," he wrote.

The estate paid $203,938.58 in village taxes, according to Santemma's 2010 letter. The tax levy on the estate for 2011-12 was $838,707.04, according to Huntington Town records, with $652,817 of that going to the Northport-East Northport school district.

But even if the estate is ruled agricultural, town and village assessors must decide whether to change the assessment also -- and lower the taxes.

Town spokesman A.J. Carter said the town assessor has said he will look to Asharoken for guidance; if the village determines that agricultural activities are not legal on the property, he will continue to deny the agricultural exemption. And if that happens, even being in the county's agricultural district won't budge the estate's taxes.

The village assessor did not respond to a request for comment.

Santemma said he plans to continue discussions with the village. "We're anxious to see if we can work something out that's satisfactory to everybody," he said.

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