Staten Island horse farm owner's talks with state to preserve site break down

Andrew J Lanza

May 26, 2009

Talks to sell one of the last stables on Staten Island to the New York State Parks Department have broken down, and the owner believes it's because Parks wants her land, not her horses.

Cherryl Mitchell of Richer Farm in Charleston, a 31-year-old stable with 35 horses, planned to sell her 1.3 acre farm to the state Parks Department for an addition to adjacent Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve. She also hoped to continue running the stable by renting that portion of the property back from Parks through a concession.

It was the alternative to selling to a builder, she has said, and until very recently Parks said it wanted to buy property located in a wooded corner of Sharrotts Road.

But the state said recently that it's longer interested in buying the land.

Mrs. Mitchell believes it's Parks' focus on preservation and passive recreation -- an attitude that often leaves the fast-disappearing horse community here out in the cold.

"It's an environmentalist attitude of preserve but don't touch," said Mrs. Mitchell. "This stable would be paying rent. Why in these economic times are they looking not to make money?"

A spokesman for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation said a lack of money prompted it to drop its plans to buy Richer Farm.

"Given the budgetary challenges that the agency is facing, it's not a good time to pursue purchasing the property," said spokesman Dan Keefe.

Keefe said he could not comment on the fate of the stable, or how the stable would have played a role in a successful sale of the land, but he said Parks had not ruled out pursuing a sale of the property in the future.

"We may return to it," he said.

In a letter last summer to state Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island), state Parks commissioner Carol Ash said her agency intended to buy the property for open space but had no plans to offer a horseback riding concession there.

Lanza, who has lobbied to save the stable, said he believes budget problems are an excuse for Parks to bow out now, especially since he thinks the stable could have generated money for Parks.

Mrs. Mitchell, meanwhile, pointed to an announcement earlier this month by Gov. David Paterson's office that the state will spend $23 million for farmland preservation.

"Of all places in the city, Staten Island, with its suburban character and open spaces, should offer the opportunity for equestrians to enjoy horseback riding. I'm fighting the seemingly pervasive sentiment within certain state offices and other small special interest groups, which believes all [park] land should be off limits to kids and families," Lanza said in a statement.

The nonprofit Trust for Public Land, which had been trying to broker a deal between Mrs. Mitchell and state Parks, has an option to buy the property that runs out in August.

"This is a wonderful property and we would love to move ahead with this project if [economic] conditions change, but at this point we have no known source of funding," said Leslie Wright, director of the Trust's New York office.

It was Ms. Wright who informed Mrs. Mitchell that Parks had dropped its plans to acquire the property, leaving the Trust unable to arrange a sale.

Ms. Wright said she was not sure if the stable would have been included in a sale of the entire property.

Mrs. Mitchell was to retain her house in the deal.

Both women declined to give the price for the property under the option agreement, but Mrs. Mitchell said it was much lower than the $3.5 million she was seeking back in 2006, when she first listed the property for sale.

"It's substantially less than what I can sell it for to a builder," she said.

Mrs. Mitchell opened her farm in 1979 and horses that boarded there over the years have been known to appear in commercials, movies and even the popular HBO "Sex and the City" series. The half brother of Smarty Jones, the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, has stayed there.

Mrs. Mitchell offers lessons to disabled children and rescue services for neglected horses.

She has long fought to save what remains of the shrinking horse community on Staten Island, a borough she's argued has a rich horse history.

She's said she doesn't mind if someone else wins a concession to run the stable, as long as the horseback riding tradition at Richer Farm remains.

"I just want the horses to stay," she said.

-Reported by Karen O'Shea