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Sag Harbor schools pull out of recreational land deal with Southampton

Dennis Sylvester Hurd

Siblings Thomas and Sophia Perry took off from school on Tuesday to try to encourage the Town of Southampton to help their school district secure land for a new athletic field.

It would be near Pierson Middle-High School, where they attend in Sag Harbor, on about 4 acres of overgrown properties on Marsden Street.

“I don't understand why some people think it's better to build more houses on Marsden, instead of a new field. Why would they want a park without a field when we have way fewer fields in our schools?” Thomas asked the Southampton Town Board.

Hundreds of school faculty, parents, and more students joined in their testimony earlier this week to urge the town to approve using its Community Preservation Fund to help Sag Harbor designate space for recreation in their neighborhood.

“It may not sound like a lot of traveling, but 45 minutes or an hour round trip regularly just means fewer family dinners, less time for homework and a lot of stress for me,” Sophia echoed her brother.

However, the Sag Harbor School District will instead ask its community in May to approve using an additional $6 million to secure land for a new athletic field.

After Monday’s meeting, School Superintendent Jeff Nichols said the district would reject the offer from the Town of Southampton made in June to help purchase the property, because the process became drawn out and the school’s voters had already approved $3 million from its reserves in November.

Nichols said in a letter on Wednesday to the community that the school board was getting wary that the town was moving the goalposts with the months-long process, and that the sellers of the property would move on to other buyers.

The town board said the decision could take at least two months to approve, undergoing a state environmental review process, in part because the five properties are in a historic district.

“An environmental impact study or statement has to be prepared. It's a lengthy process,” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schniederman said during the March 14 meeting. “So I know the school has had a desire to move this along as quick as possible. But we have to stick to the legal processes.”

Scheiderman said that while the district’s November vote to pony up for a contract with the private sellers was encouraging, Southampton must go through a state-required process for assessing environmental and community risks to development before moving forward with the purchase. “I want to make sure that everybody understands — that today is not the end of this for the town's perspective,” he said.

He and other board members also heard concern from neighbors who wanted to make sure the land was available to the entire community, maintained by the school district, had proper stormwater drainage, and included a natural grass field — instead of a synthetic turf field.

“It is just an offer letter. This is not binding. I know when you make an offer on a house, there's no contract obligation that you're going to get that house right,” said Jacqueline Fenlon, the program manager of the town’s Community Preservation Fund. “The contract was signed by the school district but the town does not, is not, bound by any contract. At this point, we have not signed a contract on this.”

The fund has an over billion-dollar budget that has set aside tens of thousands of acres for historic preservation and open space, as well as improved regional water quality. It is backed by a 2% real estate transfer tax in eastern Long Island’s five towns.

“I care about the environment. I also care that my friends and I are always being driven by our parents to [East Hampton] or Southampton or further to play sports because our fields are being used by other teams. They are too muddy and have been overused,” Thomas said.

“All that driving can't be good for the environment either,” Thomas quipped, echoing his sister.

Sophia said she hoped the town would provide open space for her community, “if you don't, what else will money be used for?”

The district budget vote will be held on May 16.

“This is not a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Town Councilperson Cyndi McNamarra said. “This is a once and forever opportunity for the school. You will never see a tract of land like this near the school ever again, possibly ever.”

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.