James FitzGerald at the Cilli Farm in Sag Harbor. Photo by Stephen J. Kotz
By Stephen J. Kotz
Most teenagers are content to mow lawns or bus tables for a summer job, but James FitzGerald has set his sights on a more ambitious project—and he’s doing it for free.
In May, the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees agreed to take on James as an intern at the Cilli Farm, a nearly 9-acre acre tract of preserved land between Long Island Avenue and Water Street that has seen little use since it was protected from development in 2000.
So every day, James, dressed in light colored clothing and toting a bottle of bug spray to ward off the ticks, leaves his home on Jermain Avenue, notebook in hand, to examine areas of the mostly overgrown property.
The goal, he said, during a recent tour of the preserve, is to inventory the plants and animals that call the Cilli Farm home, map out different micro-ecosystems and mark out locations for possible trails.
This Tuesday, July 8, he will make a preliminary report of his findings to the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees.
Once the immediate goal of mapping the preserve is complete, Trustee Robby Stein, who sponsored James for the internship, said, “In August, maybe we’ll be able to offer some rough proposals and look into what is possible there.”
He suggested that in long term he would like to see a trail or two, linking up with other village parkland along the waterfront, and perhaps some basic observation platforms, where village residents could contemplate nature, and some boardwalks skirting wetland areas.
“I don’t think it’s a big project,” Mr. Stein said. “We want to disturb as little as possible.”
James, who will be entering his sophomore year at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut this fall, said he has long had an interest in the natural world. “I’m more interested in fauna than flora,” he said, adding that he hoped to eventually pursue a career as a naturalist, preferably “in the field.”
Mr. Stein, he said, “has been a been a family friend for years, and he knows I have a longstanding interest in the environment.”
“When other kids had lemonade stands, he had a native plant stand,” said Mr. Stein.
The Cilli Farm has largely been left alone since the village, Southampton, and Suffolk County teamed up to buy it for $900,000, with the village and town contributing half of that cost from the newly established Community Preservation Fund.
The property was targeted for preservation after a developer proposed using it for a tennis club with courts protected from the weather by inflatable bubbles. That plan was vigorously opposed by village residents, including members of the now defunct Coalition of Neighborhoods for the Preservation of Sag Harbor, some of whom lobbied for the property to be used as a community garden.
Although the property was once used for farming, including as grazing land for a handful of dairy cows, James said he doubted most of it would well-suited to any kind of gardening today. He pointed to one clearing, that had exceptionally sandy soil with a fair amount of beach heather. “It’s rare to find a heathland so far from the shore,” James said, theorizing that the land had probably been filled at some point. In any event, it is fast being overrun by invasive species including phragmites, Japanese black pine, and Russian olive.
Toward the center of the property is a stand of birch trees on the edge of a wetland. “The only other large stand of birch I know is in the Mashomack Preserve,” James said.
He also said he believed the Cilli Farm may be home to a rather healthy population of Eastern aspen trees, which, while native, are rare on the East End. “I have to make sure this is aspen because I have my doubts,” he conceded.
James said he has seen a fairly diverse group of animals, from Eastern box turtles and garter snakes to fox and deer. On a recent visit, he spied what he believed was a green heron.
The Cilli Farm also has, unfortunately, a fair amount of litter in the form of beer bottles and food containers, and other trash, including a toilet.
James said he had taken part in an informal cleanup several years ago with other Sag Harbor kids but said it could use a little more attention. “Ideally, it would be nice to organize another cleanup and maybe remove some of the invasive species,” he said.
He also pointed out that the Cilli farm is joined by several other vacant parcels that remain in private hands. “It would be great if they could be preserved,” he said.
In the meantime, though, he said he hopes his work will lead to more village residents visiting the Cilli Farm in the future.
“It doesn’t make sense to me that we have this huge reserve sitting in the middle of the village and nobody uses it,” he said.