Tag Archive | "Sara Gordon"

Sylvester Manor Educational Farm Receives Historic Gift from Descendants of the Sylvester Family

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Sylvester family descendants Eben Fiske Ostby and Bennett Konesni toast with personnel of the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm to the official transfer of land at the Farm to Table Dinner Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

Sylvester family descendants Eben Fiske Ostby and Bennett Konesni toast with personnel of the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm to the official transfer of land at the Farm-to-Table Dinner Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

By Tessa Raebeck

Growing up, Eben Fiske Ostby visited his aunt Alice and uncle Andy on Shelter Island several times a year. Playing on the grounds of their family’s estate, Sylvester Manor, he had no idea that the hundreds of acres of woods, wetlands and farms would one day be his.

“When I learned of the inheritance,” Mr. Ostby said in an email Monday, June 30, “I started learning about ways we could preserve it and its lands. The Peconic Land Trust was very helpful in advising me about ways to do that. Eventually we set about forming a nonprofit to preserve it.”

On June 23, Mr. Ostby capitalized on all he had learned, donating the 1737 manor house, its grounds and barns, the 1810 windmill, farm fields and woodlands—a total of about 142 acres—to the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, a nonprofit he and his nephew Bennett Konesni founded four years ago in hopes of putting their land to the best possible use.

The land gift, the largest in the history of Shelter Island and one of the most significant land transfers on Long Island, brings the family’s donation to Sylvester Manor Educational Farm to a total of 225 acres.

Spirits were high at the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm's Farm-to-Table Dinner Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

Spirits were high at the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm’s Farm-to-Table Dinner Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

“Last week was a big one for Sylvester Manor,” said Cara Loriz, executive director of the nonprofit.

“By whatever measures you might come up with, it is among one of the very most significant outright gifts ever made anywhere,” said Sara Gordon, the nonprofit’s strategic director. “Now that it has been passed on by the family, we have just a blessed opportunity.”

Mr. Ostby, who upon his aunt and uncle’s passing became the 14th lord of the manor, is a direct descendant of Nathaniel Sylvester, who co-purchased Shelter Island in 1651 and was its first white settler.

Over its 363-year history, Sylvester Manor has given shelter to persecuted Quakers, operated as a slaveholding plantation with African and Native American laborers, and housed 11 generations of Sylvester descendants.

Throughout that history, the Sylvester family’s ownership of Shelter Island has shrunk from the entire island to several hundred acres, but the land continued to be passed from generation to generation, ultimately ending in Mr. Ostby’s hands.

Rather than let the manor fall into disuse or allow the Sylvester land to continue to be parceled up in order to maintain the manor grounds, Mr. Ostby, with some convincing from his nephew Mr. Konesni, decided on forming a nonprofit as the best means of preservation.

“The idea was to find a use for the manor that would fit in with the culture of Shelter Island,” said Mr. Ostby. “My nephew Bennett was and is passionate about food, so we chose that as a focal point.”

“Bennett at that point,” said Ms. Gordon, “had decided on this vision for this educational farm that would also revive the agrarian culture and agriculture and seek to create a working environment that was joyous and fair and really explore and celebrate the culture of food in all aspects.”

“And to upon up the gates at this place to the community—to make it a place that welcomes everyone,” she added.

Mr. Ostby first donated a 22-acre conservation easement to the Peconic Land Trust in 2009 and then gifted an additional 83 acres of historic fields and pastures, preserved indefinitely as farmland through town, country and federal conservation programs, in 2012. The total value of property gifts from Mr. Ostby is valued at approximately $22 million, with the most recent 142-acre gift appraised at $12.3 million. Of the nonprofit’s total 225 acres of land, 103 acres are now preserved.

In accordance with the wishes of his aunt Alice Fiske, Mr. Ostby also gave the manor’s longtime caretaker Gunnar Wissemann a small cottage he and his family have resided in for over 20 years.

The crowd gathered behind the manor house at the Farm-To-Table Dinner at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

The crowd gathered behind the manor house at the Farm-To-Table Dinner at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

In similar stories across the East End, family land is sold to developers and divvied up into subdivisions of Mcmansions, but the Sylvester descendants weren’t going to let that happen on Shelter Island.

Now, Mr. Konesni said, “The nonprofit organization owns its own land. It owns the land that it’s preserving, owns the land that it’s stewarding and sharing—and that’s a big deal.”

“It’s not just my family anymore,” he added. “It’s really a community organization now.”

Having ownership of the manor house, buildings and grounds enables the nonprofit to raise money for restoration of the buildings, which it couldn’t do before. They can now move forward on restoring the manor house, the windmill and the barns.

“It’s really a new beginning,” said Ms. Gordon. “That’s how it feels in a way, we feel now the work really starts.”

Mr. Konesni’s motivation to transfer the land came from three impulses: the precedent of other estates that were successfully turned into educational farms, such as the Rockefeller estate in the Hudson Valley and the Vanderbilt estate in Vermont; the notion that a nonprofit would share the burden and make sure professionals are at the helm; and stopping “the pattern of chopping up and selling off land in order to fund the place,” he said.

“We used to own the entire island,” he said, “and then we split it up and sold it off and that has helped fund the next generation of dwellers and to me, actually, that pattern can only go on so long before everything’s gone.”

“This place deserved to be around and to have the stories told for another 363 years and the only way that was going to happen was to really share the burden,” added Mr. Konesni.

Mr. Konesni and Mr. Ostby will continue to be involved in the management of the nonprofit. Mr. Ostby, who lives in California and works at Pixar, is acting as president of the board of directors. Mr. Konesni, a Maine native, is staying on as founder and special projects advisor.

“I focus on the long-term vision in making sure that our operations really fit with the original intention of the gift and the non-profit,” Mr. Konesni said of his role.

The family is retaining 11.7 acres of wetlands and woodland along the creek, which cannot be built upon without town approval of a formal subdivision.

“I also wanted to retain a family connection to the island, thus the retained lot,” said Mr. Ostby, who will give the parcel to his daughter Fiona.

“They’ve been here since the purchase of the whole island in 1651 and it’s important to all of us that the Sylvester descendants continue to have a role here—it’s a big part of the story,” Ms. Gordon said.

One of the nonprofit’s visions, she added, is that the day will come when kids who are biking home from school naturally turn their bikes into the Sylvester Manor driveway.

“It’s a rare thing to be in a place or to work in a place where you can feel that—when you know that what’s happening today is historic, in the sense that it’s going to be part of this long unbroken story here,” said Ms. Gordon.


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By Gabrielle Selz

We are a community shaped and surrounded by water, bounded on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other by the Peconic Bay and the Long Island Sound; we inhabit one of the most beautiful and highly developed regions of coastal land. However, despite increased awareness of the issues of global climate change, most of us on the East End are still unaware of the vulnerability facing our immediate area. 

Not only are sea levels rising, the rate is accelerating. Projections of sea level increases vary from, on the conservative side between 2 to 5 inches by the year 2020 to a more realistic estimation of 12 inches if rapid ice sheet melting is taken into account. Even with variance in forecasting, authorities agree that any amount of sea level rise is alarming. Additionally, because of the rising temperature of the upper level of the ocean, hurricanes are predicted to be more powerful and to last longer: Homes could be damaged, access roads flood and salt water intrude into the ground water aquifer system. 

Though there may be a discrepancy in the degree, the change in sea levels will reconfigure the nature of our landscape within the next decade no matter what we do. The question then becomes, how do we plan for a problem that encompasses uncertain projections, sudden and devastating storms as well as incremental changes happening over long periods of time?

It’s easy to visualize the impact of a major storm. We’ve seen the images of the devastation wrought by Ike and Katrina and some of us even remember The Great Hurricane of 1938, which created the Shinnecock Inlet. Though such storms are historically rare, they are occurring with greater frequency and severity. However, it’s the gradual impact over decades from the incremental rise in sea level, that are harder for us to encompass and prepare for, and yet these are the changes that will affect our lives and communities.

The news isn’t all grim. The slow and insidious nature of the problem of rising sea levels gives us a window of opportunity to plan, both for gradual change and for the catastrophic event of a major storm.

At this point, local decision makers in our communities have been unable to effectively integrate sea level rise and coastal hazard risk into any kind of policy that would protect our human communities, our natural resources and shape land use management. Even the recent new flood maps implemented by FEMA were confusing to individual homeowners as well as town officials and land use authorities. 

The fragility and beauty of our environment, combined with the highly developed nature of the area, offer unique challenges to the East End. We are now faced with the task of advocating for an approach to adaptation. This will take tremendous support for public policies that address sustainability.

In order to implement the changes that are necessary for a resilient community, we must come together as a society. We need to change land use policy and manage our resources, to acquire open space on the coast, to restore habitats as natural buffers, to move public structures, such as the Montauk Lighthouse which is an historic treasure and still dangerously situated, to change our wetland laws and, in the event of a catastrophic hurricane, to develop a post storm redevelopment plan that does not offer perverse incentives that keep people in harm’s way. All this takes time. 

A forum to address these issues is being held over the weekend of March 27th on the Southampton campus of Stony Brook University. The 1st Women’s Conference on Sustainability, co-hosted by WISE (Women’s Initiatives for a Sustainable Earth) along with Stony Brook Southampton and the Stony Brook University Center for Wine, Food and Culture is designed to empower, inspire and educate. The conference is open to women, men, professionals and novices and includes information, discussion and entertainment all focused on the issues of climate change and creating resilient communities. One of the speakers, Sarah Newkirk from The Nature Conservancy, will demonstrate an interactive map server that works much like Google Earth in helping East Enders to visualize, pinpoint and generate predictions of sea-level rise and hazards to individual homes.

Other speakers include Richard Leakey (the anthropologist who lives in Kenya on a self-sufficient farm), Patti Wood (Grassroots Environmental Education), Sara Gordon (trained by Al Gore for the Climate Project), and many more.

Designed to flow from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, with one price of $165 for the entire weekend, attendees are still free to pick and choose from the events that interest them most.

Personally, the flood of problems we face sometimes overcomes me. Yet the truth is that there are simple steps we can take. Passivity is often the result of not knowing how to participate. The conference offers us the opportunity to come together, educate ourselves, learn grassroots leadership practices, understand how change happens, and move toward action and advocacy. 

For more details and to register for the conference, go to www.sowise.org.


Gabrielle Selz is a freelance writer living in Southampton. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, More Magazine and Art Papers. She’s writing on behalf of WISE and The 1st Women’s Conference on Sustainability.