Gardiner Feud Comes Home

September 7, 2000

For years, Robert David Lion Gardiner, the self-proclaimed 16th Lord of the Manor, has urged the East Hampton Town Board to upzone Gardiner's Island to save it from future development.

On Tuesday, after Mr. Gardiner and his attorney, Joseph Attonito, repeated that request, and also urged the town to make the island a historic district, the board heard another side of the story.

Making a rare public appearance, Alexandra Creel Goelet, Mr. Gardiner's estranged niece, along with her husband, Robert Goelet, son, Robert, and attorney, Arthur Field, asked the board to leave the 3,350-acre island - which the Gardiner family has controlled since 1639 - alone.

Not A Museum

"We ask that you allow us to continue the stewardship of the island that this family began so long ago without the burden of more regulation," Mrs. Goelet said.

"This isn't a pristine time capsule," she said. "It is an 18th-19th century farm which we use as our home. It is not a museum."

"It's not for me to say you don't have a right" to develop the property," East Hampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman told the Goelets. "I'm just concerned for the future of the town to know that this gem, that nothing will happen to it." Other board members echoed his sentiment.

Family Trusts

Mrs. Goelet added that the family, which uses the island most weekends, was "very private" and confessed that Tuesday's appearance, at which they sat on folding chairs before the board and a small audience at the Montauk Firehouse, made them "very uncomfortable."

For most of the hourlong presentation, Mr. and Mrs. Goelet sat quietly, while their son held their West Highland terrier, Rowdy, on his lap, as Mr. Field outlined their objections to Mr. Gardiner's proposals. Alix Goelet, the couple's daughter, was not present.

According to Mr. Field, ownership of the island would move from the United States Trust Company to two Goelet family trusts when Mr. Gardiner, who is 89, dies. The property was first put in trust for Mr. Gardiner and his sister, Alexandra Creel, in 1949, he said. Mrs. Creel died in 1990.

Fifty Years

Mr. Gardiner "has not contributed to the upkeep in any significant way for the past 20 years," Mr. Field said. "At his death there will be no financial problems." He added that 25 years of lawsuits, in which Mr. Gardiner has tried to force the sale of the island to himself, will also end at Mr. Gardiner's death.

The Goelet trusts have enough income to maintain the island for at least another 50 years, Mr. Field said, adding, "I can't assume in 100 years everything will be fine."

Upzoning the property, which is now five-acre residential, or creating a historic district would only lower the island's value and make it more expensive for the family to maintain, Mr. Field said.

No Promises

The Goelets' son, Robert, said he and his sister were "hoping to live normal lives in the city while hoping to continue with what we have at Gardiner's Island."

"We pretty much grew up there. We know it like the back of our hands," he continued. "The idea of developing it would be a real slap in the face."

When pressed by Supervisor Schneiderman as to whether the family planned to limit development by putting at least part of the property in conservation easements, Mr. Field would only reply, "That is the likely outcome."

"We want it to stay in its natural state and we're trying to make that happen," said Mrs. Goelet.

Twenty-Five Acres

But Mr. Gardiner, who let Mr. Attonito do most of the talking in a separate meeting held three hours before the Goelets' presentation, has long maintained that his niece and her husband would try to develop the property as soon as he dies.

To protect the island, Mr. Attonito said the board needed to "create a higher zoning category" than the five-acre zone that exists now with "the inclusion of Gardiner's Island in that zone." During a recent tour of the island, Mr. Gardiner called for 25-acre zoning, but neither he nor Mr. Attonito mentioned that specifically on Tuesday.

While a historic district would not halt development, "it would be a good first step," Mr. Attonito said.

Developer's Dream?

Mr. Gardiner has his own foundation, according to Mr. Attonito, that would help maintain the island in its natural state after his death. "He is willing to put his money where his mouth is," Mr. Attonito said.

Although the attorney conceded that major work would be required, from bringing electricity to providing ferry service, to develop the island, he said it could reap a developer a return in the "hundreds of millions of dollars."

"They developed Fisher's Island. They developed Block Island," he said. "There's no reason on God's green earth that you couldn't develop Gardiner's Island. All it takes is money."

"Can you imagine having a Gardiner's Island address?" he continued. "Fisher's Island would be green with envy."

Restraints Possible

Eric Bregman, the town attorney, said he did not think there would be any problem in designating the island, which is a single piece of property, a historic district.

"It would be difficult to impose restrictions on subdivisions," he said, "but you could do all sorts of things to control development."

Mr. Gardiner, who said he wanted the island to be maintained like parkland with limited access, rejected a suggestion from the audience that the family donate the property to the Nature Conservancy or a similar organization.

Human Resource

"The Nature Conservancy is not interested in the human aspect" of Gardiner's Island, only its natural qualities, Mr. Gardiner said before launching into a summary of the island and its inhabitants' place in American history, from the time of the Dutch colony at New Amsterdam to the War of 1812.

While Mr. Gardiner has often referred to himself as the only person sufficiently knowledgeable about the island's history to protect its future, Mr. Field said that was all part of a successful "public relations campaign."

Since their marriage on the island 24 years ago Saturday, the Goelets have thrown themselves into its maintenance and preserving its historic buildings "with gusto," Mrs. Goelet said.

"It's not just the property that is unique. It's the stewardship that is unique," said Mr. Field. "What does one have to do after 350 years to be trusted with this island?"

"The town is both blessed and cursed with Gardiner's Island," said Mr. Attonito. "Blessed because it is unique, unspoiled out in the bay. Cursed because it is responsible for it."