Going, Going…East Hampton Gets a Nature Preserve and House on a Pond. To Save? Nope.

Fort Pond
Fort Pond, Courtesy Halstead East Hampton, LLC

Back in the 1950s when I was growing up, Montauk had virtually no town amenities. There was no Second House Museum. There was no library. (The Suffolk County Bookmobile came once a month). There was the Montauk Lighthouse. And there was the Hither Hills State Park. And that was it.

Since that time, the Town (Montauk is part of East Hampton Town) has provided much for its citizens to enjoy. But one asset, which was purchased by the town in 2003, has been heartlessly put up for sale by the present town administration. The facility is Fort Pond House, a unique property in Montauk on the edge of a pond known for its programs for kids, where the Nature Conservancy or the Boy Scouts or Camp Shakespeare or Montauk Public School would provide nature programs. Adults were welcome too.

The property, four acres of lawn, wetlands and a small house are on the banks of Fort Pond, not in the center of town but along its eastern shore, where reeds and swans and turtles and ducks live. If it is comparable to anything, it would be to the Duck Pond on David’s Lane in East Hampton Village. People go there. They learn about nature. The Montauk School kids were especially pleased to have this facility. The school is just a few hundred yards away. The kids would go out into the pond in rowboats and learn about frogs, scallops, clams and oysters, the wetlands and the various flowers and fauna. Its dock was the only launching point for boats into Fort Pond. Now, with Fort Pond House closed, there is no public access to that body of water at all.

The property operated as the Third House Nature Center, and at the time the place was closed down in 2010, the people running the place had to gather up all their books and magazines and exhibits and take them out to waiting moving vans and leave it broom clean. The building and its grounds were to be put up for sale.

Thus ended a time, from 2003 to 2010, when an estimated 500 school children from the Montauk School alone had enjoyed as many as 200 lectures, book readings, nature walks, films and hands-on projects involving pheasants, salamanders, snails and other creatures. There had been explorations out in rowboats, field trips to other locations in the town. People who contributed included environmentalist Larry Penny, Ed Johann, John Strong, Scott Weidensaul, Tom Clavin, Stephanie Krusa and Vicki Bustamante and a host of others. This place, for those years, was a treasure for Montauk, a one of a kind place.

The expulsion had nothing to do with the programs being offered there. Indeed many of the programs continue to be offered by Third House Nature Center.

It was just that in 2010, the new town board, headed by Bill Wilkinson, needed the money. The prior town board, headed up by Bill McGintee, had driven the town $28 million in debt because of its wild spending ways. The Fort Pond House had not been purchased on McGintee’s watch, however. It had been purchased by the Town Supervisor before McGintee, Jay Schneiderman, at a time when the town budget was balanced and there was plenty of funding. Schneiderman had paid $890,000 for it. Now Wilkinson put it up for sale for $2 million.

Why Wilkinson chose this small project is baffling to me. There were many other projects and properties such as raw acreage inland, or maybe the hump of what is an island in Three Mile Harbor that the town paid more than a million for that could be sold. Here you had something valuable and unique to the Montauk community. Why sell that?

The explanation given at the time was that the little screened-in house would have to have work done, would have to be secured when no one was in it, would have to be maintained, would have to be guarded. As editor of this newspaper, then and now, I have found these very inadequate reasons. I fought to not have it happen. It happened. Recently, two of the five Town Board members put forward a plan to take the property off the market. It had not sold. As a matter of fact, there were lawsuits from people who couldn’t understand why this could not stay open and how the Town would have the authority to do this without a referendum from the people. Meanwhile, the Town made cutbacks in departments and in payroll and had solved its financial problems by obtaining a bond from the State to allow the nearly $30 million debt to be paid off in a proper and meaningful way long term. Taxes actually declined in the second year of the Wilkinson administration.

When the matter came up a few months ago to reverse the decision to sell Fort Pond House, however, the vote was a tie at two to two with one abstention. So a month later it was brought up a second time with the same result. Now there is talk to bring it up a third time, to which Wilkinson said, publicly, “Can a board constantly bring up the same subject?” Well, yes, they can.

Today, Montauk has many civic improvements it can be proud of. Since I arrived, Main Street has been landscaped with park benches and trees. The Town Green sports a gazebo for concerts and a 50-foot American flag pole. Six blocks of Main Street have antique replica streetlights. Sidewalks have been completed. Curbing has been put in (there was none when I moved here). The library is a big success. The museum is a big success. There are two proper ball fields, one for soccer and one for softball, public tennis courts, a police annex, a chamber of commerce office, a town clerk’s office, a town beach downtown and there are parks owned by the town, and a wonderful town community center, the Montauk Playhouse. It’s even  possible a Montauk Indian Museum will be built. All from the town, or all shepherded by the town with private funding. We have come a long way.

But this unique former nature house has been on the market for three years now and there have been no takers. Take it off the market. Fort Pond House, the place where kids can learn about the environment first-hand, should instead be reopened for the enjoyment of visitors and citizens of Montauk alike.

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