At Large : Caught in the flames
A couple of hours after The Times version of the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation story was published on May 29, a reader who chose the online name, wb, posted a comment. "The wealthy landowner should be keel hauled," was wb's take on the story. The comment was not unique among reactions to the news that broke in the Vineyard Gazette on May 23. Others took the position that, in effect, SMF should get the same punishment. Still others condemned the landscaper who was permitted by SMF to remove unwanted trees and plants from SMF property.
SMF had violated state regulations governing the treatment of land considered by the state to be priority habitat, by failing to file a required plan for work at the Caroline Tuthill Preserve, a 150-acre property in Edgartown. It will be required to repair the damage done and make a new plan. SMF had filed a management plan for the work on another holding, the 61-acre Priscilla Hancock Meadow in Chilmark, but failed to fully describe that work. More repair work here. The work began at both places this spring. Incidentally, about 75 percent of the Vineyard falls under the priority habitat rules, including perhaps the lot on which your house sits.
The "wealthy landowner" is Dirk Ziff, to whose Paul's Point property plants and trees removed from the SMF property were to be taken by Mr. Ziff's landscaper, John Hoff of Oakleaf Landscape.
SMF had a management plan. The plan, kept in the SMF files, was written by Tim Simmons, an SMF employee when he drafted the plan, and now a Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) restoration biologist. NHESP is the agency responsible for enforcing the provisions of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, and it is the state agency to which the description of the planned work ought to have been filed. The plans called for the removal of the vegetation, and Mr. Hoff's job was to get it out of there, at no charge to SMF.
Speaking of a relatively open area on the Tuthill property, Mr. Simmons wrote in his management plan, "The succeeding field represents a declining habitat on the Vineyard. Its open character could easily be preserved by cutting down the invading tree and shrub vegetation and thus allowing the persistence of meadow species such as butterfly weed."
An undated SMF précis of the plan for the Tuthill preserve reads as follows: "Walk trail every two weeks, maintain trail as needed. Check field near Triangle ... and woods off Edgartown-Oak Bluffs Road for garbage, camping, and marijuana growing. Mow field near Triangle ... annually. Mike Donaroma does this in exchange for right to take cedars from field. In 1993, we plan to clear bittersweet from row of trees along Vineyard Haven Road and erect fence to block any opening created. Continue clearing of field off Edgartown-Oak Bluffs Road ... Matt Tobin mows and chips branches in exchange for right to take cedars and pitch pines from the field."
This spring, long after the pre-1993 management plan noted above, Mr. Ziff was most likely under the impression that he was doing a good turn, both for SMF by underwriting the removal through his employment of Mr. Hoff, and for Island conservation by furnishing a new home for the vegetation unwanted on the SMF's land, but useful on his own.
Tipped to the ugly, mid-process, and extensive state of the work underway, Mr. Simmons made an investigation and a site visit on May 15, finding SMF in violation.
Mr. Hoff had removed vegetation in the past and done other work for SMF, as part of a barter agreement that provided him with native plants in exchange for labor. It was a common practice, as the SMF plan précis I've noted indicates, though in hindsight much too informal for these hysterical and vicious times. There is every indication that Mr. Hoff did what he had agreed with SMF he would do. There is every reason to believe that SMF had not entered into an unsavory arrangement with Mr. Ziff to acquire plants that ought to have been preserved on the SMF land. Mr. Hoff is highly regarded, but badly used in this conflagration. His participation ought to be, but has not been, staunchly defended, particularly by SMF.
The Vineyard Gazette broke the story, and they did it in the most inflammatory terms. The thrust was that Sheriff's Meadow Foundation was in cahoots with a wealthy landowner and was guilty of "strip mining fields" it ought to be preserving and protecting. Many Islanders, who depend on and despise their wealthier neighbors, signed on, happy to beat up SMF, the landscaper, and the rich guy.
A less fevered inquiry reveals that no "strip mining" - the in-vogue description prompted by the intemperate coverage of the story in the Vineyard Gazette - of conservation land occurred, and that Sheriff's Meadow Foundation was aware of what Mr. Hoff was doing, and that it was not at all the case of a rich guy having his way with the environment.