For the Gazza family, finding imaginative ways to make money from land that others see as worthless, or at least not worth the hassle, has become a way of life.
In the 1990s, Quogue resident Joe Gazza became something of a local celebrity—in Town Hall circles, anyway—by diving into an obscure development market using tiny, cheap parcels of land known as Old Filed Map lots, which are too small to develop individually. But, painstakingly, and with a touch of inventiveness, he pieced the lots together and, for pennies on the dollar, ended up with lots to develop. It helped burnish his image as a “creative” developer: A stretch of light industrial buildings he created along the west side of Old Riverhead Road in Westhampton, on the edge of restricted Pine Barrens land, is still known colloquially as the “Gazza Strip.”
Now, his son, Zach, has followed in his father’s footsteps: Through a website, he is using Old Filed Map lots to build his own development business, bringing a wry new twist of irreverence to an issue that vexed even his attorney father.
“In order to build on Old Filed Map lots, you have to preserve land elsewhere,” the young Mr. Gazza explained while demonstrating the homepage of his website, www.BeAManBuyLand.com. “I have 2.5 acres I put together in Westhampton ... so, in order to build, I have to preserve 2.5 acres somewhere else. So I get one here and one and a half over there, and take the development rights off them. So I have these lots.”
But rather than just allowing those mostly useless tiny lots, for which he typically paid a few hundred dollars to owners who had never seen them and had no use for them, to fade into the surrounding woodlands of the pine barrens, Mr. Gazza is selling them again.
The lots are tiny and densely wooded, and a house cannot be built on them. But they are still properties in Southampton Town—which makes their owners taxpayers, even if they are paying just a few cents a year in town taxes. In exchange, they receive all the benefits that come with being a taxpayer—like access to coveted beach parking permits at rates reserved for town residents.
For $7,500, Mr. Gazza trumpets on his website, a regular visitor to the Hamptons who doesn’t have an actual lease or house can legally park in the “Residents Only” section of the local beaches, dig clams in the bay, and drive their SUVs on the beaches in the evenings. Because land expunged of development rights can still be used for recreation, their owners can go camping with their families on their own little postage stamp-sized section of the largest swath of undeveloped land on Long Island. Or they can be stalking deer in woods free from the encroachment of other hunters.
“When people first call, they’re skeptical—they think there’s some trick,” Mr. Gazza said. “Some people want their own land to go hunting on, to have their own lot where they can put their tree stand and not find some other guy 10 feet away the next day. Or they want to go camping—real camping, no outhouses—in the woods but closer to home than upstate.
“Some people just want to put some land in their children’s names, so when they move away, they can come home to visit they have the benefits of being a resident,” he continued.
Mr. Gazza said he’s sold more than a dozen of the lots so far for between $7,500 and $16,000, depending on sizes. He finances the purchases himself, taking $1,000 as a down payment and allowing the balance to be paid at 6-percent interest. Most of the sales have come to him through his brashly named website, which is emblazoned on the side of his pickup truck and has popped up on various local real estate blogs.
“He’s gone out on his own, and he’s doing a good job,” Mr. Gazza’s father, Joe, said this week. “I’m trying to retire from that business.”
The elder Mr. Gazza was not the first to find value in the Old Filed Map lots—a throwback to the pre-zoning days of the early 20th century, when the tiny parcels that appealed to the lure of landownership, even if only symbolic, were given away with promotions and even magazine subscriptions—but he is certainly its most famous practitioner. Mr. Gazza found that with a small amount of money and a giant amount of effort, the lots could generate substantial profits. Mr. Gazza, an attorney, made a practice out of tracking down the owners of these lots, many of whom had legally inherited them from late relatives without being notified.
The elder Mr. Gazza, as his son tells it now, would sit and write letters to these landowners. He’d inform them of their ownership and explain the complexities of their land’s existence and its intrinsic lack of value. The letter would include very little in the way of information about where the land was located. And often a sale was brokered for a paltry sum—found money for the landowner, and a tiny piece of the pie for Mr. Gazza.