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May 3, 2018 10:48 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Making Tomato Sauce In Sagaponack, With A Side Of Mansions--And Lawsuits

Sagaponack Village recently gave Marc Goldman permission to build three hoop houses for growing tomatoes on his oceanfront property. DANA SHAW
May 14, 2018 9:24 AM

The Sagaponack Village Board recently gave one of its largest and most notorious landowners a permit to develop a much-litigated parcel of oceanfront farmland on Daniels Lane.

Considering that Marc Goldman has two lawsuits pending against the village, has had multiple previous development proposals for the land rejected by the village, and planted a portion of the field with Christmas trees—seemingly out of spite, to block views toward the ocean from the public road—the approval could be seen as something of a surprise.

But there are no multimillion-dollar houses to be built on the 43.5-acre property in the permission granted—just three low-slung plastic “hoop houses” for growing tomatoes.

The approval, allowing the hoop houses to remain for just one year, was granted unanimously at a special meeting of the board, after Mr. Goldman, who purchased the 43.5-acre lot in 2000 for $30 million, withdrew an application he’d submitted last summer that sought permission for a much more involved tomato-based operation.

Those plans had proposed three permanent greenhouses, a livestock barn for pigs, a petting zoo and a rambling nearly 9,000-square-foot house for the farm’s workers—part of the headquarters, the application said, for a new organic tomato sauce company, which would be based on some of the most valuable real estate in the country.

The tomato sauce production, and the worker housing, would have been located entirely on the 25 acres of the parcel that in an agricultural easement that Mr. Goldman granted to the Peconic Land Trust in 2007, a move that has saved him hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes. The easement requires that the land be used only for agricultural production. State agriculture codes allow housing for farm workers on agricultural lands, however, and place no limits on the size of such housing.

The plans for tomato sauce production are still on the horizon, Mr. Goldman said in a recent interview, but he withdrew the more involved plans because he wants to get started experimenting with tomato varieties this year, and concerns over the worker housing component of the plans were holding up the planting.

“I need to get started as soon as possible,” said Mr. Goldman, who grew up on a dairy farm in New Jersey. “I recognize I’m going to have to do some experimenting on some new varieties of tomatoes and techniques that I’ve been researching and how they respond to the location. I’m going to have to feel my way along, one step at a time.”

The housing component of Mr. Goldman’s unusual plans were, indeed, a hitch in the review of that application that was unlikely to be worked out quickly. The rough outline of the designs for the sprawling farmhands’ residence more or less mirrored those in a proposal Mr. Goldman had brought to the village in 2013, when he was asking to build just a single house on the entire property, at the corner farthest from the ocean.

After years of reviewing that proposal with raised eyebrows, the Village Board rejected the modest proposal, citing a belief that the property would be subdivided later to create more housing lots, as Mr. Goldman and two partners had proposed in various forms before. Village officials said the application was an “end run” around the village’s stated preference for how the lots should be arranged.

Mr. Goldman sued the village over the denial, and lost. He then declared that he was starting a Christmas tree farm on the agricultural reserve and rimmed the property with already full-grown trees, planting rows of tiny saplings in the field. Most in Sagaponack saw the move as retaliation and an attempt to block the views across the farm field that the village had said was an important feature of the property.

His application last summer drew similar skepticism from village officials, with the ominously familiar-looking house plans set in nearly the exact same location but this time surrounded by a first-of-its-kind commercial agriculture operation.

But, for now, those plans have been shelved for at least a year.

“I”ll take him at his word—he wants to experiment with organic tomatoes that will thrive in the oceanfront soils of Sagaponack,” Village Mayor Don Louchheim said on Monday. “He wants to go ahead with his [hoop houses.] They are arranged so there’s minimal impact on the viewshed, so we approved those plans for one year.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Goldman and his two partners in the property, Michael Hirtenstein and Milton Berlinski, are locked in their own legal struggle with each other—again.

Mr. Hirtenstein and Mr. Berlinski paid Mr. Goldman $15 million each in 2005 for the rights to two of the four lots that had been in the original development plan for the property. In 2008, the village gave the partnership preliminary approval for four house lots, about 3 acres each, on the property: three along the ocean, and one more just north of the oceanfront lots.

But disagreement over how the lots should be arranged and who had the authority to negotiate such an arrangement with the village set off a lawsuit by Mr. Goldman against his partners. After years of wrangling and a trial, the suit was dismissed.

In 2013, amid the legal in-fighting, Mr. Goldman submitted new plans for a subdivision that put the fourth lot to the northwesternmost corner of the property, farthest from the ocean, where Daniels Lane and Peters Pond Lane meet.

The village rejected that proposal, saying the house in the northwest corner of the property was unacceptable. Mr. Goldman withdrew the application and submitted a new one—for the one house at the northwest corner of a 43.5-acre lot.

Last year, the saga took another legal twist. Attorneys for Mr. Hirtenstein and Mr. Berlinski brought in their own subdivision application for the entire property, with plans essentially identical to those that the village gave the green light to in 2008. Mr. Goldman and his partners engaged in another lawsuit, over who had the authority to file applications for the property’s development. The suit is still pending.

Mr. Goldman also sued the village, again, over their “approval” of the partners’ application—even though no such approval has been issued.

Mr. Goldman took over his family’s company, Farmland Dairy when he was in his 30s and ran it for three decades. In the 1980s, he set off a “milk war,” as newspapers at the time dubbed it, by successfully suing New York State to overturn a decades-old policy protecting the state’s dairy producers from New Jersey competition. He also pioneered new marketing approaches to the sale of specialty products, like Skim Plus.

When Mr. Goldman sold the company, which his grandfather had started with 30 cows in 1914, it was one of the largest in the Northeast.

In the recent interview, he likened the state’s barrier to business he brought down in court in 1987 to the roadblocks that Sagaponack has put up to his plans for developing the Peters Pond lot—with, thus far, less success in the courts.

But he hopes that ultimately, the law will agree with him. “I feel good about my case,” he said, “but we’ll see.”

Unlike the dairy business, in which a business has to be large to compete, Mr. Goldman said he has high hopes for his tomato sauce venture, because it will rely on quality.

“Here, I don’t have to become the biggest,” he said, “only the best.”

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It's Daniels lane
By greenmonster (18), southampton on May 9, 18 9:54 PM
Correct, Daniels Lane...
By knitter (1575), Southampton on May 10, 18 8:55 AM