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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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 muse.
“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.
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.
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.
Having spent three decades in the finance and insurance risk management space, coupled with being the founder of an international venture development firm, David said “when I found out what the previous 2 owners did professionally, I got goose bumps. My life’s professional journey followed the same path”
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.