The Undevelopment Movement
By Tom Delamater
In the middle of Manhattan, at the heart of one of the world’s busiest cities, rests 843 acres of prime, preserved land: Central Park.
UNDEVELOPMENT AT SHIPS’ HOLE FARM
In the middle of Manhattan, at the heart of one of the world’s busiest cities, rests 843 acres of prime, preserved land: Central Park. For 170 years this picturesque property, surrounded by some of the most expensive and sought after real estate on earth, has stood as a monument to New York’s natural heritage and beauty.
It is a testament not only to the value of preserving our outdoor spaces, but also to the desire people have to experience, and commune with, the natural world.
That spirit of preservation is spreading, and nowhere is it more evident than at historic Ships’ Hole Farm in Smithtown, on Long Island’s North Shore. Located along the Nissequogue River, the 23-acre private estate residence dates back to 1828 and draws its name from a nearby inlet once known as “Ships’ Hole,” where, in the 18th and 19th centuries, cargo schooners would wait out the tide before continuing their journeys.
“Because of its location, rich history and family importance, there was a stipulation by the former owners that the farm remain undeveloped, and that appealed to us,” said Rochelle Norman Capo, who, along with her husband David, took on the challenge of restoring Ships’ Hole Farm to its former splendor in May 2016.
“There was so much to do, we almost didn’t know where to begin,” she said. “But we saw the potential and began to revive the property so it could once again be used for its intended purpose.”
THE VANGUARD OF UNDEVELOPMENT
Rochelle and David are four years into a five-year restoration effort, having cleared appropriate acreage and established agricultural and equestrian programs at the farm.
Now incorporated, the historic property is at the vanguard of what has become known as the “undevelopment movement.” Running counter to the common practice of gobbling up open, rural properties for residential or commercial use, advocates of undevelopment seek to preserve the natural beauty of such properties for the long-term benefit of the land and its inhabitants—and even reclaim certain overdeveloped areas that have been poorly maintained or abandoned.
“The idea emerged from an innate desire we all feel to reconnect with what is natural,” said Sally Lynch, president of Old Field Farm Limited in Setauket and a proponent of undevelopment. “It goes against the grain of the develop-at-all-cost mindset, and recognizes that not everything should be sacrificed to concrete, blacktop and steel.”
Lynch, a longtime friend of the Capos who boards a horse at the Ships’ Hole Farm stables, is a vice president of an almost century old investment firm in New York City. In 1996 she led a group that established a 501(c)3 exclusively to restore Old Field Farm County Parkland in the historic Three Village Area. Formerly known as the North Shore Horse Show Grounds, the property was legendary for its world-class equestrian competitions and social standing.
Although it had fallen into disrepair after the death of its owner, the family was able to have the farm designated as Suffolk County parkland. After years of searching for a suitable party to shoulder the revitalization of this special parcel, Lynch and her colleagues—including the Capos—set about restoring the once beautiful show grounds to their former splendor.
Today the parkland once again hosts a series of noted equestrian and social events that preserve and promote Long Island’s equestrian, agricultural and community-oriented focus, even as the farm’s physical revitalization continues.
Lynch and the Capos are not alone in their perspective about the need for a return to the natural beauty and purpose of the land. “The specter of development on Long Island looms large, primarily because of the waterfront,” said Stephen Searl, executive director of Sylvestor Manor on Shelter Island and a longtime land conservation advocate. “However, people are becoming more attuned to their surroundings. They want more open space, and in many cases favor the outright removal of things like vacant strip malls and other blights on the landscape that were left behind by decades of commercial and residential construction.”
CONTINUING A FAMILY TRADITION
As they assumed responsibility of Ships’ Hole Farm, the Capos utilized many years of knowledge and experience gained at Hunts Brook Farm in Quaker Hill, Conn., which is operated by David’s cousin, Rob Schacht, and his wife Teresa.
Hunts Brook, an 88-acre farm, has been in the family for nearly a century and features a popular and highly successful community-supported agriculture program that serves the Waterford region and beyond. The success of Hunts Brook provided a blueprint for how Rochelle and David would operate the Long Island property.
“We’ve always been community-minded as a family. Our farms at Hunts Brook and Ships’ Hole offer the opportunity to provide a source of organic, healthy food for our friends, neighbors and respective communities” said Schacht. “Resisting the temptation to over-commercialize the properties has had far more intrinsic value than developing them ever would.”
David agrees. “The true costs of development are often hidden, and they can be substantial,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s all or nothing, as if everything needs to be preserved. That’s not possible. But there’s a growing sense that, as a society, we need to get back in balance with the natural world.”
Undevelopment is an outgrowth of that. People are focusing more on preserving our planet and respecting our natural resources. It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that we have a responsibility, collectively and individually, to preserve our open spaces and appreciate their natural beauty—and perhaps take things a step further and undo, or undevelop, some of the damage we, as a society, have caused.
At Ships’ Hole Farm, that responsibility is on display through the restoration and preservation work Rochelle and David continue to complete, as enthusiastic participants in the burgeoning undevelopment movement.
RESTORATION THROUGH INNOVATION
The work that faced Rochelle and David Capo at Ships’ Hole Farm was challenging, but it wasn’t anything that hadn’t been tried before. In fact, the idea of preserving the natural beauty of the land as a way of life was the vanguard of a crusade that took place in America more than a century ago.
In the early 1900s an effort was made to preserve traditional, rural lifestyles in the United States by maintaining and enhancing the living conditions of people in rural areas. It was so influential that in 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a Country Life Commission to establish a balance between rural and urban life. Eventually the commission recommended bringing technological advancements—roadways, modern schools, and agricultural extension programs—to rural residents.
Over time, America’s urban centers began to overtake many of those rural sanctuaries. Eventually, the creation of the interstate highway system in the 1950s cemented the country’s urban sprawl for good, and the United States quickly became a nation connected by concrete and steel.
The country’s population, which was 76 million at the dawn of the 20th Century, nearly quadrupled to more than 280 million by the year 2000. Such growth required more homes, more schools, more stores, more factories and offices, and more centers of recreation and entertainment. All of that required more land, which was rapidly developed—some would say overdeveloped—in the name of progress. Today, America’s ever-surging population totals more than 330 million.
In the 1800s, Smithtown was a farming center, and the Nissequogue River allowed for the easy transport of goods. Over time, the land along the river was divided into single-acre parcels for residential use. In the middle of all that development stood Ships’ Hole Farm and its 23 acres.
So what Rochelle and David set out to do wasn’t unheard of, but it certainly was unusual, considering the history of the town and of the properties that bordered the river. They took possession of the farm in May 2016 and began the process of restoring it to the kind of natural beauty and grandeur it once enjoyed.
To get started, David took out a sketchpad and drew a diagram of what the farm might include. “Based on that, we jumped in and began the process of transforming the property,” he said.
But their vision went beyond the land itself. In addition to agricultural and equestrian programs, they saw the farm becoming a base of operations for a number of commercial enterprises. In truth, Ships’ Hole Farm would become a brand.
“As we researched the history of the farm, we discovered that the original owners, and their successors on the property, were involved in more than just agriculture,” said David. “They had deep roots in the community and conducted other forms of business that revolved around the exchange of products and services.”
He and Rochelle decided on the same approach, organized under three main categories: Produce, Products, and Commerce.
PRODUCE: A RETURN TO AGRICULTURE
When they moved to the property, the upper acreage—the prime section for planting—was overrun with thick brush and long grass. They purchased a tractor, hired additional help as needed, and began the task of clearing the property. At the same time, they undertook much-needed maintenance projects on the house and began stabilizing structures such as the bank barn and stables.
Today the farm grows and harvests chamomile and garlic, utilizing natural biological processes and carefully monitored soil and nutrient management.
“Garlic is a historic crop on Long Island,” said David. “It does well in a variety of soil conditions, and so does chamomile, which made them ideal crops to start out with.”
They’ve since begun tilling additional acreage to prepare for more crops in the future. The goal isn’t to build a massive commercial operation, but rather to maintain what’s known as a hobby farm, in keeping with the small farms that make up about 70 percent of agricultural operations in the United States.
PRODUCTS: PREMIUM DEALS ON TEMPTUOUS FOOD AND BEVERAGES
In addition to produce, Ships’ Hole Farm returned to its historic trade-and-barter roots by introducing an online Marketplace where shoppers enjoy premium deals and discounts on a carefully curated selection of food and beverages.
“We’ve been involved in creating e-commerce platforms for more than a decade, so we took that knowledge and created a place where friends of the farm could purchase quality food and have it delivered to their door,” David said. “We regularly identify interesting offers from our affiliated merchants and pass the savings on to our customers,”
These include discounts and other special offers on beverages, snacks and meats. The Marketplace is updated regularly, and customers can subscribe to receive email “Yum Alerts” when new offers are made available.
COMMERCE: BLENDING HISTORIC AND MODERN REVENUE CHANNELS
As they researched the farm’s history, Rochelle and David learned that the earliest owners—dating back to farm’s inception in 1828 and prior—were engaged in three additional lines of business: banking and finance, risk management, and venture development.
“It was fascinating to learn that they were actively involved in steamship operations, the development of the U.S. railway system, and a variety of other entrepreneurial and business pursuits,” David said.
This concept aligned perfectly with the couple’s life and career experience over the past 25 years, and sparked new ideas for revenue channels under the Ships’ Hole Farm brand.
As longtime residents of Long Island’s North Shore, Rochelle and David were intimately familiar with many of its scenic communities—and those of the neighboring barrier islands. One of those, the popular vacation destination of Fire Island, became the centerpiece of two of their ventures: Fire Island Labs and FireIsland.com.
Fire Island Labs is a distributor of products that combine nature’s finest ingredients with modern-day science and technology for a superior consumer experience. Fire Island Labs offers a full line of rich, aromatic, private stock coffee grounds curated from organic farms on six continents, along with a line of pure CBD and hemp products, including hemp flower, CBD coffee supplements, and hemp cigars and pre-rolls.
“The popularity of coffee has never been higher, and demand for CBD and hemp is also on the rise,” said David. “Our products are of the highest quality and have been engineered to fill an important, growing niche in the consumer market.”
FireIsland.com is a comprehensive online travel guide for the island, offering the latest information on dining, nightlife, hotels and lodging, events, real estate and more. Updated ferry schedules to and from the island are provided, and the site incorporates FireIslandNews.com.
In addition, several other entities operate in whole or part under the Ships’ Hole Farm umbrella, including: VeteransBanker.com, which provides small business loans for veterans, active military, and first responders; and EgisLife.com, which provides custom rate life, business and health insurance for cannabis businesses and cannabis users.
The farm also has a revenue-sharing agreement with SimonAgency.com, which provides retail insurance brokers with commercial and personal line markets nationwide, and is affiliated with Puzlink.com, a business development firm that builds companies and serves as a referral resource for growth-oriented businesses.
Even as their various business entities help make Ships’ Hole Farm self-sustaining, Rochelle and David envision a future for the property as a gathering place for businesses and the community, including events to celebrate important things.
The story of the farm is one of history, perseverance, restoration, and innovation. Much more than that, however, Ships’ Hole Farm has become a brand, encompassing a number of businesses designed to sustain its operation and ensure that it survives, and thrives, for generations to come. As it does, it will remain a bellwether for the Undevelopment Movement, while serving as a blueprint for other farm properties to follow for a more profitable, self-sustaining future.