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Developer seeks variance to build 17 homes at Owl Hill estate in Smithtown

Smithtown officials had once hoped to buy and

Smithtown officials had once hoped to buy and preserve Owl Hill, an estate near Sunken Meadow State Park that was built in 1903 and designed by architect Henry K. Murphy. Credit: Chris Ware

An Amityville developer is seeking a variance from Smithtown zoning officials to build 17 houses at Owl Hill, a Fort Salonga estate near Sunken Meadow State Park that town officials once hoped to buy and preserve.

Michael J. Ryan, principal of Owl Hill Estates and Preserve LLC, will go before the Smithtown Board of Zoning Appeals on Tuesday to request permission to alter sloped land on the 27.63-acre site’s south edge. Ryan is president of the sports facility builder LandTek. Richard Rauff is a partner on the project.

The site is zoned for one-acre lots, but leaving that land undisturbed would yield just two lots, Smithtown environmental planner Allyson Murray said in an interview last week. Clustering development around a cul-de-sac road built on the sloped portion of the site and giving access from Sunken Meadow Road would yield 15 lots, each about two-thirds of an acre, according to a preliminary subdivision map the developer submitted to the town Planning Department.

Two smaller lots, designated for workforce housing, would be located off Fort Salonga Road to the north. A historic 6,500-square-foot mansion would remain near the center of the site, and the cluster design would keep about a third of the land as green space, Murray said.

Vincent Trimarco Sr., a lawyer representing Owl Hill LLC, said Friday that his client’s cluster design yielded no more lots than area zoning permits.

"This is the best way to do it because it protects, I think, the surrounding area and makes the property look less developed," Trimarco said.

Owl Hill LLC bought the site last year from relatives of inventor Michael N. Yardney in two transactions totaling $6.2 million, according to property records.

Yardney developed a catapult for jets in World War II and founded a company that made batteries that powered equipment for astronauts to walk on the moon, according to a 1975 obituary.

The town’s effort to buy and preserve at least a portion of the estate with $1 million in town and New York State funds foundered after Yardney’s family rejected a town offer based on a 2017 appraisal, Murray said last year.

After a Feb. 17 virtual hearing, the town planning board recommended zoning appeals board approval over objections from neighbors and Preservation Long Island preservation director Sarah Kautz, who asked for an environmental impact study because of the site’s cultural significance. Town environmental staffers will decide whether or not to recommend an impact study after Tuesday’s hearing.

Owl Hill was designed by Henry K. Murphy, an architect best known for his work in Asia in the early 20th century. It was built in 1903 and is "one of the few surviving intact properties of his early period," said Kautz, who added the site might have Indian graves found at other hilltop locations on the North Shore.

Tela Troge, a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation in Southampton and a tribal attorney, said the estate location is outside the tribe’s territory but that she would contact an intertribal group regarding a possible burial site.

Fort Salonga Association board member Frank Capaccio said Friday in an interview that the civic group feared losing a "unique property" to dense development. The lots proposed for workforce housing are both under half an acre, smaller than most properties in the area, and because of the site’s elevation, houses built on some other proposed lots would tower over neighbors on Yorktown Place, he said.

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