- Patricia Topping wants to subdivide her horse farm so the view
from her farmhouse remains the same for the rest of her life. Topping also wants her children to carry on the family business and she has no intention of building on her subdivided land or selling the lots.
The land is literally worth millions but the joy of preserving open space and providing for her children, she says, is priceless.
"I don't want to build on this land and I don't want to sell it," Topping said as she sat in her farmhouse office on a cold and windy winter afternoon as the sun shined brightly across the fields. "I am a horse farmer. My three children are in this business with me and they want to continue. Their greatest fear is that their mother will die and they will lose everything."
Topping worked long and hard to devise a plan that would allow her to keep the farm and preserve open space without selling the development rights and stripping the land of its full potential value as prime residential real estate. In the highly prized Hampton's home market an acre of land south of the highway is worth upwards of $2 million. The pressure to sell to developers or retain the right to sell in the future without losing the last precious remaining open spaces is never far from the mind of any farmer or large landowner on the South Fork.
Once the land is sold and developed the open space is gone forever. If the landowner sells the development rights to preserve open spaces, they forgo a potential multi-million dollar windfall further down the road in a time when the future seems more uncertain than ever before and land in the Hamptons is like money in the bank.
It took eight years of research, hard work and thousands of dollars to gain approval from the Southampton Town Planning Board for the 10-lot subdivision dividing the 37.2 acre farm on the corner of Mecox Road and Halsey Lane in Bridgehampton into two parcels. The first parcel, comprised of 10 lots totaling 19 acres, includes the original farmhouse, and outbuildings as well as nine additional building lots varying in size from slightly less than one and a half acres to three acres.
The remaining 18 acres will be set aside as agricultural reserve used strictly for farming and horse pastures. The entire 37.2 acre parcel will remain a horse farm during Topping's lifetime
. Should she or her heirs decide to file for building permits, or sell the land to someone who wants to build on the land, a review process requiring the creation of a road running into the property along with the installation of a public water hook-up, septic system and underground electric and cable lines would come into play.
Topping obtained final conditional approval of her unique application from the Southampton Town Planning Board in January. The approval was granted with a list of 20 boilerplate conditions that must be met within 360 days. "I have until Feb. 5, 2010," Topping said as she recalled the long and winding road she traveled to reach her goal.
It took eight years of research, hard work and thousands of dollars to gain approval from the Southampton Town Planning Board for the 10-lot subdivision dividing the 37.2-acre farm on the corner of Mecox Road and Halsey Lane in Bridgehampton into two parcels.
Topping was able to gain approval for her subdivision plan from the Suffolk County Health Department by agreeing to upgrade conditions on the farm. The Health Department insisted the existing underground fuel tanks be abated and replaced with aboveground tanks. In addition, Topping had to connect her farm buildings to the Suffolk County Water System (SCWA). "If I did all that, the Health Department was willing to allow me to bring my children into the property without all the subdivision requirements," Topping explained. It took more than two and a half years to accomplish all that. "It was a very unusual request," Topping said. "I just wanted to include my three children on the land."
Topping embarked on her subdivision application in 2000 at the age of 54, emerging as a self-styled expert on estate planning, land use and preservation at age 63, having spearheaded a movement to examine the town's planning policies with an eye toward estate planning and land preservation.
"There isn't anything I didn't delve into. I've been this way all my life," Topping said with the practicality and can-do problem solving approach often associated with farmers. "I research the problem, I write out my options, post them on the walls of my office, then I study them."
Topping devised the unique plan herself after years of study, leaving no stone unturned as she researched federal, state and local laws concerning land transfers, subdivisions, estate planning and tax ramifications so she could retain the farm without sacrificing its full value by selling the development rights to the town or the county. She gained approval from the Suffolk County Health Department in what is viewed by planners as no small feat.
Topping devised the unique plan herself after years of study, leaving no stone unturned as she researched federal, state and local laws concerning land transfers, subdivisions, estate planning and tax ramifications so she could retain the farm without sacrificing its full value by selling the development rights to the town or the county.
"It was hard work, but it was very exciting and intellectually stimulating," Topping said. "When I started this there were 96 parcels of undeveloped land totaling 2,200 acres in Southampton from Manorville to Wainscott. The parcels were owned by 65 landowners, 44 of whom were farmers.
Everyone was talking about the big bad developers, but I didn't really find any out there."
In order to move her plans forward Topping enlisted the support of John Halsey of the Peconic Land Trust
, the Group for the East End
and met with all the landowners and farmers who would potentially be affected by town codes enacted concerning subdivisions and the preservation of open space.
"I'm very proud of the fact that I was able to make something so unusual doable," Topping said, recalling how her involvement began. The town's policy in 2000 and 2001, when planning reached crisis proportions, drove up-zoned agricultural land to a minimum of two acre lot subdivisions that landowners claimed devalued their properties by more than 66 percent. The town also required a 50 percent set aside for open space on any major subdivision - a requirement that dramatically reduced a landowner's lot yield.
"My goal was to see the town give people options rather than bulldoze through one plan. Everyone has a different family dynamic. Everyone has a different property and a different set of problems so there can't be just one solution," Topping said.
Topping acquired her horse farm in 1974 after leasing the property from family members in 1970. The property came into the family when her great uncle bought the land in 1946. She would like to write a book about her experiences sometime soon.
"I think there is a story to tell here that would interest farm families across the country. "I've been able to save my farm and retain its full value for my children. I think I did the right thing. In any case, we will all be dead before we know who is right and who is wrong," Topping concluded in a wry combination of resignation and optimism. "If I've done the wrong thing, then fine. But I don't believe that."