Dick Cavett was sitting by the window in his Upper East Side Manhattan apartment last week as sirens wailed by, wishing he were in his beloved Montauk home, Tick Hall.
“It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve been there now,” he said on the phone, “and I start to feel such a longing. I imagine the tree frogs and the shadblow and the time of the year when the shad trees that cover the end of the island bloom. It looks like a very light snow has fallen … it’s wonderful.”
In December, after years of negotiations with the Nature Conservancy, Mr. Cavett, the famously erudite former talk show host, sold 77 acres of his oceanfront Montauk moorlands to East Hampton Town, Suffolk County and the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for $18 million; each entity paid $6 million plus 33 percent of the closing costs.
He made the sale because he wanted to see the land preserved just as it was, he explained.
“My fears had grown about the land,” he said. “The idea of waking up at some point in the future and seeing a Polynesian Hotel and a Best Buy out here hit me,” he said. “Also, the thought of all those deer being disturbed by jackhammers and bulldozers, and ruining people’s views ... so I just thought I’d rather save the land to the benefit of the town,” he said.
Mr. Cavett kept a 20-acre lot that contains his Montauk Association home, a copy of one of eight houses designed by the architect Stanford White in 1883 for a group of wealthy New Yorkers. Mr. Cavett and his wife rebuilt it as an exact replica after the original burned to the ground in 1997.
His 77 acres of preserved land adjoins the preserved 122-acre Amsterdam Beach property, which was bought for preservation by the town, county and state for $16.5 million in 2005.
The Montauk moorlands are a pristine, globally rare ecosystem, according to Bruce Horwith, the Montauk site director for the Nature Conservancy, which helped negotiate the sale. They are dense with native vegetation and extensive wetlands and a number of threatened or endangered species, such as the blue-spotted salamander and the sand plain gerardia. The land ends with steep, windswept bluffs overlooking the Atlantic.
Interest in the land stretches back almost 20 years, Mr. Cavett said, as the town began to preserve oceanfront property, working with the Nature Conservancy as its agent and preservation advocate. At that time, the issue of preserving the land did not seem urgent, he said.
“Somewhere in the last eight or 10 years, it came alive again with the Nature Conservancy, and this time it seemed like a good time to do it,” he said.
Marian Lindbergh, the conservation finance and policy director of the Nature Conservancy, led the Cavett deal to its closing. She said that the Cavett property had been one of the organization’s priorities going back to the mid-1990s. Ms. Lindbergh said she “inherited the Cavett file” in the late 1990s, and immediately called Mr. Cavett’s lawyer, David Englander, to ask how Mr. Cavett and his wife, actress Carrie Nye, who died in July 2006, were feeling about selling the land for preservation.
The Cavetts had been dissatisfied, back in 1990s, Ms. Lindbergh said, “before the Community Preservation Fund began, because they didn’t think the government would be able to pay close to market value for the land.”
The turning point came after the town, county and state purchased Amsterdam Beach and the town purchased the Weisz property which also abuts the Cavett land, for $9 million.
When the Weiss sale went through, Mr. Cavett’s “interest was really piqued,” said Scott Wilson, the town director of land acquisitions.
“It got them interested in talking again in realizing that a preservation purchase could be something approaching what they’d get in market value,” Ms. Lindbergh said.
In November 2006, the town received a signed letter of interest in a sale from Mr. Cavett.
There were several appraisals of the land and a town assessment to estimate how many building lots could be created under zoning, if the property were not preserved. The yield assessment determined that the land, which is zoned for 10 acres and contains extensive freshwater wetlands, could be divided into four lots. Negotiations were then complicated by the involvement of several governmental entities. The Nature Conservancy advocated on behalf of the town to convince the county and state why the land should be on a priority list for preservation.
But in the spring of 2008, Mr. Cavett listed the property with the Corcoran group for $30 million.
“We were trying to find a balance and see what our avenues were and understand what the value of this land was,” Mr. Englander said. “There were some significant offers that exceeded the offers that were coming from the governmental agencies.”