Will Peckham, left, founder of West Robins Oyster Co., and Jack...

Will Peckham, left, founder of West Robins Oyster Co., and Jack Healey, who works with Peckham, harvest oysters on the Great Peconic Bay on Nov. 6. Credit: Randee Daddona

A waterfront lot that Mattituck residents helped save from potential development has a new owner who’s committed to improving water quality in nearby Deep Hole Creek.

“I grew up on the water, so I was always really keen on being a good steward,” said Will Peckham, 31, who plans on using the property for oyster cultivation and land farming.

The nonprofit Peconic Land Trust sold the 15-acre farm on New Suffolk Avenue to Peckham, a Southampton oyster farmer who co-founded West Robins Oyster Company in 2016, with zoning conditions that required Peckham to protect the land in perpetuity. The sale was a joint effort involving the land trust, former owners, North Fork community and Southold Town to maintain a scenic vista and ensure that it stays actively farmed, both on land and sea.

“It represents security as an aquaculture business,” Peckham said, describing the financial challenges of searching for waterfront property to grow the business. "Working waterfront is so expensive," he said. Once a thriving industry on Long Island, oyster farming declined amid pollution and overharvesting. The Long Island Oyster Growers Association currently counts 70 farmers as members, according to Ben Gonzalez, a Shelter Island oyster farmer and treasurer of the organization.

The fallow field is located on an idyllic road dotted with farms, vineyards and creeks stretching south from Mattituck to New Suffolk. Neighbors quickly mobilized when its former owner got town approval to subdivide the property into seven residential lots and listed it for $3.3 million in 2021.

A community effort to preserve open space

“A big part of our community character is our farms and open spaces,” said Cutchogue resident Carolyn McCall, who got involved with the grassroots effort, stuffing mailboxes with flyers and talking to neighbors about preservation. Residents also feared additional development could negatively impact water quality.

The community raised about $670,000 for the Peconic Land Trust, which took out a line of credit to cover the rest of the 2022 purchase price, listed in Suffolk County property records at $2.85 million.

Peconic Land Trust vice president Yvette DeBow Salsedo said the Koehler family, which owned the property, was willing to collaborate, agreeing to hold off on selling the property while the group acquired the funding.

The organization then sought proposals from farmers, ultimately selling the land to Peckham for $1.65 million in July.

“We had a great pool to choose from, and having [Peckham] propose the terrestrial as well as the aquaculture was really unique,” said Kim Quarty, director of Conservation Planning at Peconic Land Trust.

Will Peckham shucks an oyster. A joint effort between Southold residents and...

Will Peckham shucks an oyster. A joint effort between Southold residents and the Peconic Land Trust saved a 15-acre property in Mattituck from potential development.  Credit: Randee Daddona

Building an oyster shipping business

Peckham plans to build docks and a building on site to allow for packing and shipping his oysters to consumers, stores and restaurants on the East End and in Manhattan. Packing and shipping is done mostly at the source: from a 24-foot skiff on the Peconic Bay, where he farms oysters off Robins Island.

He also plans to raise oysters in a nursery to improve water quality in Deep Hole Creek. A 2016 report from the Peconic Estuary Partnership showed the creek had elevated nitrogen levels, which is often caused by aging septic systems and fertilizers. Oysters act as natural filters, feeding on contaminants in the water and able to cleanse up to 50 gallons per day.

Southold Town used about $840,000  in Community Preservation Funds to purchase development rights on 12 acres. Peckham may use the remaining two acres to build a home for himself or farmworkers. The Community Preservation Fund generates revenue in the five East End towns via a 2% tax on real estate transfers used for preservation and water quality initiatives.

He hopes to begin work at the site in 2024 and partner with a land farmer to sustainably farm the remaining acreage.

“I’m really focusing on trying to reduce any runoff into Deep Hole Creek and build soil health, given that it’s a waterfront agricultural property,” Peckham said.

Credit: Randee Daddona

A 'huge win' for the North Fork

Becoming an oyster farmer wasn’t always Peckham’s plan. But a 2013 internship with the Beartooth Group, a Montana-based company that uses private capital to restore cattle ranches, ignited entrepreneurial and environmental ideas.

“My eyes were opened that business didn’t always have to be a zero-sum game where you’re just trying to maximize profits,” he said.

The following year, Peckham graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont with a degree in economics, but quickly discovered Wall Street wasn’t his passion. Then, he visited a friend working on an oyster farm on Fishers Island and was inspired.

“I realized that they were making a living and simultaneously improving the water quality,” he said.

The trust, which turns 40 this year, aims to not only preserve farmland, but help farms stay viable, particularly for farmers who don’t stand to inherit family land or find the cost of land prohibitive.

Farther east in Southold, the organization is currently seeking proposals for a five-acre plot of farmland that includes a restored 1747 home.

“We want to encourage food production where we can,” Quarty said.

McCall said the effort is a “huge win” for the entire North Fork.

Alison Delaney, who manages large gifts and donations for the Peconic Land Trust, said she was surprised at the swift outpouring of support.

Delaney said there were 124 donors from Laurel to Orient with contributions ranging from $10 to over $100,000.

“I had one donor from Orient put it to me this way,” Delaney recalled.

“They said: ‘It’s not my backyard this time, but next time, it could be.’ ”

Beyond preservation

  • Since 1983, the Peconic Land Trust has helped protect nearly 14,000 acres of land on Long Island.
  • In peak summer months, West Robins Oyster Company harvests about 12,000 oysters a week.
  • An adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water daily.
  • Oyster reefs provide habitat for other species, including crabs and fish.
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