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Aug 25, 2015 3:18 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Louis Bacon Adds Golf Holes To Cow Neck Preserve

An aerial view of Cow Neck Preserve.
Aug 31, 2015 4:08 PM

When Louis Bacon—a Wall Street billionaire, the owner of Robins Island and a noted conservationist—donated a conservation easement for the 540-acre Cow Neck peninsula 15 years ago, he gave up many development rights for the North Sea property.

The right to build golf holes on it wasn’t one of them.

Earlier this year, first clearing and then golf holes appeared on the property—the exact number is unclear, although it appears to be three fairways with an assortment of greens and tees to allow a combination of play options. The golf holes are located near a polo field on the southern side of the peninsula, not far from West Neck Creek.

Mr. Bacon’s representative did not return calls this week.

Golf holes often mean the intense use of fertilizers and pesticides, a point confirmed by Kevin McAllister, the founder of Defend H2O, which works to protect the ground and surface waters on Long Island.

“I wouldn’t consider either the polo field or the golf course a form of conservation,” he said when asked about some of the more aggressive uses of the Cow Neck property. “Conservation would be open fields and woodlands.”

However, it turns out that as many as nine golf holes are in fact permitted within the terms of the conservation easement with the Peconic Land Trust—the largest such easement in the Land Trust’s history, according to John v.H. Halsey, its founder and president.

Conservation easements mean that a property owner gives up specific property rights, usually enjoying tax benefits, while an agency or organization monitors and enforces the easement to ensure that the property owner never exercises those rights. Conservation easements are never “all-or-nothing” propositions, Mr. Halsey explained. “It can’t be, because it’s a negotiation between two people,” he said. “It’s a tradeoff.”

In the case at Cow Neck, tidal and freshwater wetlands, woodlands, agricultural and equestrian lands, uplands and meadows that are a part of the property were all factored into the final terms of the conservation easement. Certain parts of the 540 acres are designated for specific uses only.

The golf holes lie within an “equestrian, farm and game management” zone that is 113 acres. In that section, Mr. Bacon may have as many as nine golf holes with their related greens, as well as a polo field, a stick and ball field, equestrian riding rings both indoors and outdoors, stables, sheds, barns and paddocks, among other things.

To maintain golf holes and the like, many fertilizers—both chemical and organic—pesticides and biocides are permitted.

“It is expressly allowed in the easement and not considered development. There are certain [other] areas where he can’t do something like that,” Mr. Halsey explained.

The 113-acre portion of Cow Neck had been a dairy farm until the 1980s, meaning it had been “disturbed” even before the golf holes and polo fields were developed, he said.

Another portion of the property is an “open area” where Mr. Bacon is most limited in what he can do. That section must “be retained substantially in their current undeveloped open, natural, agricultural, landscaped and scenic condition,” the easement says of the 387.4 acres it contains, which have increased from an original 209 acres.

In the original 2000 easement, the equestrian, farm and game management zone totaled 146 acres. It has since shrunk by 33.6 acres, thanks to an amendment last fall in which Mr. Bacon gave up more acreage that could have been used for development. Another zone, called the limited building area, consists of 39.6 acres and allows five single-family residences, the only area where such construction is permitted. At the time of the original easement, three homes already existed.

Had Mr. Bacon decided not to donate his property, under local zoning laws he could have constructed a total of 80 homes on the entire 540-acre property.

“We couldn’t have asked for a more conservationist person,” Mr. Halsey said of Mr. Bacon. “When negotiating, you want to get as much as you can get.”

Mr. Bacon purchased Cow Neck in 1998 for $25 million, besting several competing buyers—including Donald Trump, who wanted to build a full golf course on the site. The owners of the property at that time, the Salms, sold it to Mr. Bacon specifically because he agreed to preserve the beauty of Cow Neck and its ecologically sensitive areas.

In return, he received a tax deduction, which is calculated by subtracting the value of the property with the easement in place from the value the property would have had if full development had taken place.

“What he has retained, the rights he has retained, is factored into the gift,” Mr. Halsey said of the deduction. In other words, Mr. Bacon’s right to have polo fields, nine golf holes, an additional five homes, and all of the other development rights that he has retained, influences his tax deduction and makes it lower than it might have been had he given up more rights. Nevertheless, “He probably gets a very substantial gift,” Mr. Halsey noted.

He is right: In 2000, before the easement, according to Diane Van Slyke, the senior assessment clerk at the Southampton Town tax receiver’s office, Mr. Bacon paid $212,936.56 in annual property taxes. In 2014, that figure was, in fact, significantly lower: $25,564.24.

Mr. McAllister explained that while polo fields and golf courses have less impact than residential uses, the use of pesticides is still harmful to local waters. “I am just trying to be clear: A golf course and polo fields, there is impact to those uses, and particularly my concern is the pesticide applications,” he said. “One could only hope that management of those lands [involves] the least impact to water quality.”

The Land Trust has the perpetual right to keep an eye on the property each year to ensure Mr. Bacon is staying within the appropriate lines. He has not violated the terms of the agreement even once, Mr. Halsey said, adding, “It means a lot to all of us.”

Kyle Collins, Southampton Town planning and development administrator, said there was no need for Southampton Town Planning Board approval for the golf holes because they are for personal use. “A golf course is his own personal way of landscaping his property, and he is the owner of it,” Mr. Collins said.

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The 2014 tax bill is more than what 35% of Americans make in a year.
By Mr. Z (11693), North Sea on Sep 6, 15 9:26 AM
Its an organic golf course. They fly in bull crap from Texas in refrigerated cargo planes on a weekly basis.
By Toma Noku (616), Southampton on Sep 6, 15 10:23 AM
1 member liked this comment
why is this news now-construction started over 18 months ago
By westhamptonboy (227), Westhampton on Sep 6, 15 11:32 AM
Who cares it's better than 250 houses, which was an option at the time. By the way don't you need planning board review for a golf course?
By chief1 (2790), southampton on Sep 6, 15 11:44 AM
The least of all ills, is still an ill.
By Mr. Z (11693), North Sea on Sep 6, 15 12:15 PM
Why is this news? He has stayed within all his agreed upons rights. seems this article is nothing more than stirring the pot.
By bubby (236), southampton on Sep 6, 15 4:22 PM
i too asked myself what was the main point of the article after i read it

not sure where the "news" is

don't be a hater sh press. Mr. Bacon is actually a decent man
By llimretaw (118), watermill on Sep 6, 15 5:41 PM
1 member liked this comment
Much like all 27 East reporting. I read it but hate myself afterwards...
By lirider (288), Hampton Bays on Sep 6, 15 7:13 PM
Of course Komrade Z is unhappy with anyone who is wealthy. Lighten up!
By bigfresh (4594), north sea on Sep 6, 15 4:34 PM
1 member liked this comment
Crawl back under your bridge.
By Mr. Z (11693), North Sea on Sep 6, 15 10:13 PM
1 member liked this comment
Louis Bacon has basically preserved thousands of acres on Long Island how many have you Z? Is z for Zero?
By chief1 (2790), southampton on Sep 7, 15 8:33 AM
Don't you have a bridge to get back to?
Sep 7, 15 8:53 AM appended by Mr. Z
Oh, and as far as land I can't say I'm a speculator or an able preservationist. However in the salvage category, thousands of dollars in technology have passed through my hands to those in need. All it cost was my time and talent, the former of which is innumerably more valuable than money or property...
By Mr. Z (11693), North Sea on Sep 7, 15 8:53 AM
Talk is cheap.
By chief1 (2790), southampton on Sep 7, 15 1:09 PM
It is very hard to see how big $$$$$$$$$$$$ are ruining the East End. Some of my ancestors worked very hard to keep it the paradise it is, or was in the 1950's and before that. It is my sorrow I can no longer afford it.
By summertime (589), summerfield fl on Sep 7, 15 5:14 PM
Mr Bacon is using his big $$$$$$$$$$ to save the east end
By westhamptonboy (227), Westhampton on Sep 7, 15 10:57 PM
Its funny how locals don't cause congestion with their cars. The locals don't cause pollution with their septic systems. No locals never cause anything it's those pesky out of towners paying our taxes, and cresting jobs. Pathetic local thinking.
By chief1 (2790), southampton on Sep 8, 15 7:54 AM
1 member liked this comment
stars have once again aligned as my thinking agrees with Chieftan's words.

We all should be whipping stones at our glass houses, no?

Our "business" pollutes the bay just as much as the "business" of people from Manhattan
By Nature (2966), Southampton on Sep 8, 15 2:28 PM
How can an article about such a great thing like the preservation of hundreds of acres come across as so negative? It's as if the press set out to deliberately do a hatchet job. And I do believe Mr McAllister needs to get his head out of his behind. Isn't he the guy that got thrown out of his own conservation organization?
By bird (824), Sag Harbor on Sep 8, 15 7:32 PM
2 members liked this comment