If there was ever a local story that showed how public opinion, expressed loudly and clearly, can change the outcome of a public decision, it is the story of the Fort Pond House in Montauk.
In the year 2003, Lee Deadrick, who owned a small summer home on the Shepherd’s Neck peninsula at Fort Pond in Montauk, deeded over that property to the Town of East Hampton in exchange for $890,000. As it was on four acres, and had nearly 800 feet of waterfront on the pond, this was quite a bargain. The idea was, and it was accepted at the time by Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, that this house would become a nature study house for the use of the people of Montauk and specifically for the school children of the hamlet. The house, little more than a wooden cabin with a screened porch facing the pond, was just a five-minute walk from the Montauk school. In the pond were salamanders, snails, frogs, bugs, fish and turtles. On the pond were swans and ducks. Onshore was wetlands, grass and lots of flowers and, sometimes, fauna including pheasants and an occasional fox. There was also a small dock.
The Fort Pond House was open to everyone. Besides the kids at the school marching down for programs at the house, there were programs offered by Boy Scouts and the Nature Conservancy. There was a rowboat. People brought down canoes and there were canoe lessons. This four-acre peninsula of land had and still has the only no-profit public access point to row around in the pond by boat.
These programs continued for seven years, at which time the Town of East Hampton, under the stewardship of Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, decided to put the property up for sale for $2 million. The prior town administration, under the leadership of Bill McGintee, had run up a nearly $30 million deficit. Fort Pond House needed repairs, it needed to be made secure, it needed to be guarded, it was an insurance liability. It could be a source of much-needed revenue.
The community went ballistic about this. Montauk is an unincorporated part of East Hampton. Had this been in East Hampton Village, this would never happen. People compared it to the duck pond in downtown East Hampton, often visited by school children. But Fort Pond House was 12 miles away. Guess it wasn’t that important. This newspaper wrote editorials about the callousness of the Town. Other newspapers did, too.
Nevertheless, in 2010, the town closed the facility to the nonprofit corporation that was overseeing Fort Pond House. Those there were then evicted, given a date to leave. Out came all the books and magazines and exhibits into moving vans. Gone were the films, nature walks, book readings and lectures, attended sometimes by a crowd that filled the House to its full capacity of 50 listeners. There would be no more lectures and no more explorations by rowboats or anything else. Estimates were that more than 200 book readings and lectures and other projects were held there during its active years.
Fort Pond House would blend back into the landscape when sold—a private home for a well-to-do individual right on the water.
The house did not sell for quite a while. And eventually, Town Supervisor Wilkinson found other ways to balance his budget. It is balanced today, although the town had to float a long-term bond to make it work.
Meanwhile, Montaukers and the press continued to beat up on the Town government to abandon the sale, and finally, they agreed. In 2013, Fort Pond House was taken off the market, fixed up with a new roof, roughly $350,000 of improvements and, right after Memorial Day, re-opened. Now, not only are there nature programs offered, but the House is also available for rent for weddings, birthday parties and other affairs.
Next on the agenda in Montauk comes Second House, a saltbox house built around 1746 as a shepherd’s summer home. It served as the Montauk Museum from 1957 to 2013 but then, in need of repairs, it has been closed since.
We did one. Now we will do another. This is how this Town works.