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Feb 5, 2019 12:05 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Former Southampton Town CPF Manager Reflects On 3,500 Acres Of Preservation

Former Southampton Town Community Preservation Fund Manager Mary Wilson retired from her position last week. GREG WEHNER
Feb 5, 2019 2:35 PM

Nearly 3,500 acres of land in the Town of Southampton was preserved during the past 17 years, utilizing roughly $650 million in Community Preservation Fund revenues.

It was all done under Mary Wilson’s supervision.

And that’s not all she was able to preserve. As the CPF manager for the town, Ms. Wilson was instrumental in preserving historic landmarks like the Pyrrhus Concer house in Southampton Village, the Rogers house in Bridgehampton, and the Tiana Life-saving Station and the Lyzon Hat Shop in Hampton Bays. That’s not even counting the large swaths of wetlands along the coast.

Now, at the age of 55, Ms. Wilson is stepping away from her duties with the town to retire to sunny Florida.

“I feel like I did my job,” she said on Friday. “It’s bittersweet, because I love this. I love this work. I love what we’ve done here. … But, it’s time to go.”

Ms. Wilson grew up in Orange County, New York—a middle-class agricultural community.

Many of her activities revolved around being outside—she was a member of the school ski team and spent countless hours hiking miles of trails in and around her hometown.

Ms. Wilson also liked creative writing, and said she knew she would be an attorney one day.

After attending the State University of New York at Albany, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English, she moved to Florida to study law at Florida State University.

The entire time she was in law school, she worked as a lifeguard for the Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue, furthering her love for the outdoors. In 1989, Ms. Wilson graduated with top honors, but even after graduating, she continued to work as a lifeguard.

“I really enjoyed it,” she said. “I loved being outside, staying fit, swimming, and being around the water and the beaches.”

Ms. Wilson said she initially wanted to go into environmental law, but after taking courses on the subject, found it to be regulatory and bland. So, after graduating, she completed an internship at Florida Rural Legal Services, a not-for-profit organization that provides legal services to the needy, and was hired when the internship ended.

While there, Ms. Wilson enjoyed being in the courtroom, most of all. She also said she found working for the agency to be rewarding because she was helping out those in need.

In 1998, Ms. Wilson and her then-husband, Kevin McAllister, moved to Long Island after he accepted a position with the Peconic Baykeeper—a not-for-profit environmental advocacy organization on the East End. They settled in Quogue.

Ms. Wilson went to work as an assistant town attorney for the Town of Southold and when the CPF manager position became available in Southampton, she eagerly applied

She recalls being asked during an interview why she wanted the job.

“I honestly said, ‘There’s two areas of law that are important and close to my heart: representing the poor and protecting the environment. I’ve already represented the poor, and did that for eight years. Now is the opportunity to protect the environment in a very non-confrontational and positive way.’”

She was hired.

Ms. Wilson explained on Friday that even though environmental law courses were bland in college, she remained passionate about protecting the environment.

When Ms. Wilson took over the CPF program for the town, one of her first initiatives was to develop a land management stewardship program, in which 10 percent of the CPF revenue collected by the 2 percent transfer tax on all property sales is used to manage and maintain the land that is preserved through the program, since one did not exist prior.

The CPF had only been enacted four years prior to Ms. Wilson accepting her position, and no one had considered how the town would maintain the properties.

The road to getting CPF approved was not an easy one. The program’s sponsor, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. hit a few road blocks along the way.

When Mr. Thiele tried to get the CPF legislation approved in Albany, Governor George Pataki refused to sign it until language could be added that required that the preservation of agricultural land would be the highest priority.

That struck a chord with Ms. Wilson, who said she placed a big focus on farmland.

“The preservation of farmland is important on several levels,” she said. “There’s obviously the scenic value, and that is community character out here, and preservation of the industry through helping the farmers do estate planning. So, it’s protecting industry, preserving the soils and protecting the views.”

The town would typically purchase the development rights—the perceived value of the property if it were built out—from the farmers to ensure that the land could only be used to farm. Once the development rights are purchased, the farmer is left with a piece of property that is somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of what it would have been valued at previously, reducing their property tax obligations.

She explained that land on the East End has risen in value so dramatically that farmers were drowning under inflated tax bills. To help pay the taxes, the farmers would, often times, sell the land, or portions of it, to developers.

When the town purchases the development rights, the land value drops, bringing the taxes down to a level that the farmers can afford, while maintaining their agricultural lifestyle.

Once the development rights are purchased, the town places an easement on the property, she said, that says the property can only be used for agricultural production.

“Period, end of story,” Ms. Wilson said. “You can never sell it to someone to build houses. You can’t build houses.

“They enter a program promising to farm and not do anything else, and their taxes are significantly reduced,” she added. “It was a good thing for us and the community, and a good thing for the farmers in terms of estate planning and keeping the farmland in the family.”

Some of the farms Ms. Wilson worked to preserve through the purchase of development rights were the 25-acre oceanfront farm owned by the White family in Sagaponack, the 115-acre Wölffer Farm, also in Sagaponack, and the 99-acre Kijowski Farm in East Quogue.

Along with the Kijowski Farm, Ms. Wilson was able to work with the owners of the 86-acre Densieski Farm in East Quogue and other farmers in the area to preserve a 250-acre swath of farmland along County Road 104.

Mr. Thiele said Ms. Wilson was always open and transparent as the CPF manager. The two worked together frequently, he said, oftentimes speaking at least once a week to discuss interpretations of what the CPF can and cannot be used for.

While Mr. Thiele and Senator Ken LaValle created the legislation and pushed it through Albany, Mr. Thiele said Ms. Wilson was the person on the ground who implemented the legislation.

“She was the person who maintained the integrity of the program,” he said. “She set the standard that everyone else in the role will be judged on in the future. … She did a tremendous job.”

Ms. Wilson also helped to preserve historical pieces in the town, including the Lyzon Hat Shop in Hampton Bays.

The Lyzon Hat Shop was a destination for many who visited the East End from 1910 before shutting down in the early 1960s. Ms. Wilson said people would come from New York and as far as Europe to purchase one-of-a-kind hats from the shop.

The shop attracted America’s elite and was featured in Vogue magazine for its hats—some were fancy and some were practical, others were ornamental and even had feathers from pheasants and ostriches.

The store’s interior was described by some as posh and luxurious, with red drapes, oversized mirrors and a showing room on the second floor with a grand piano.

The restoration of the building cost the town $594,360 in CPF money, and took 11 years to complete. The building was donated to the town historical society in 2006, which then turned it over to the town for preservation. At the time, the wood was rotting. The restoration included relocating it 80-feet from its original spot, adding a modern bathroom, interior woodworking, restored floors and windows, and a new paint job.

In 2017, the powderpost beetle, an invasive species, was found in the hat shop after pinholes were seen in the wood, as well as fine dust. The discovery only slowed down progress on the building, and the Hampton Bays Historical Society was on the hook for the expenses since it signed a stewardship agreement with the Town of Southampton before the beetles were found.

Fortunately, the damage was minimal and the hat shop reopened its doors as a museum in 2018.

“I’m really happy about that, because when they wanted to do the restoration, everything was there,” Ms. Wilson said. “They didn’t have to re-create molding, walls, stairs. It was there. The original stuff was there.”

Looking back at the restoration of the hat shop and the many other historic buildings she helped save, Ms. Wilson said she could step away with a feeling of satisfaction.

And that is what she has done. Ms. Wilson’s last day was January 31.

While she is still trying to figure out what she wants to do next, Ms. Wilson said she signed a one-year contract with the Town of Southold to continue working on preservation projects from Florida, though she may have to come up to New York at times.

She said Southold has a much lower volume and does only a couple of preservation projects a year. She also said she hopes to get involved in projects in Florida that focus on preservation—in keeping with her passion to protect the environment.

“If we don’t have our natural resources, we don’t have anything,” she said.

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First Congrats Mary..welcome to "The Re-Journey Club....it's pretty Sweet��
Secondly I honestly don't know where to start. As Executive Director of the Southampton African American Museum and Chair/member of yhe Pyrrhus Concer Action Commiitee (PCAC)project let me just say...Mary you've been with me from the very beginning of Randy's barbershop to SAAM. And you were extremely instrumental in preserving the legacy and Homestead of the Pyrrhus Concer project. I just want to say ...more
By MsB (16), Southampton on Feb 7, 19 8:14 AM
Mary did an amazing job managing the CPF program. She will be missed.
By Craigcat (249), Speonk on Feb 7, 19 8:56 AM
This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By themarlinspike (166), southampton on Feb 7, 19 9:12 AM