Land gift restrictions to Ag Society narrowly limited uses

The Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society barn is a popular venue for community events, but its use is limited by zoning bylaws and agricultural preservation restrictions that accompanied the land. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

For more than a century, the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society (MVAS) held its annual fair, a highlight of August, at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury. In 1994, the Ag Fair moved to a new home a short distance away on a cleared field on Panhandle Road, where a new wood frame barn stands today.

The move was made possible in the same deal that placed stringent conservation restrictions on a large chunk of land adjacent to the Ag Society parcel.

In November, 1991 Bob and Jeanne Woods, longtime seasonal West Tisbury residents, placed a 511-acre parcel, named in honor of Mr. Woods’ mother but still owned by Mr. Woods, under a conservation restriction held by The Nature Conservancy [See related story], since transferred to the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS).

The Woodses sold a 23-acre parcel on Panhandle Road to the Agricultural Society for $175,000, well below market value, and protected it from development and commercial use with an agricultural preservation restriction (APR) the town and VCS would hold jointly.

The APR limited use of the property to the “full-range” of non-profit and educational activities MVAS “has historically pursued,” as well as limited commercial activities that “relate directly to the non-profit and educational function of MVAS.”

A desirable venue for parties

A sharp increase in the number of requests to rent the Agricultural Hall prompted a discussion among the selectmen and Ag Society officials on June 15, 2011, about the possibility of expanding both the number and the types of events allowed.

Town officials leaned heavily on a July 8, 1998, legal opinion town attorney Ronald H. Rappaport gave to town zoning officer Lenny Jason. Mr. Rappaport concluded that the use of the property is limited by the town zoning bylaws and the APR.

Mr. Rappaport highlighted the controlling language in the APR. The property owner had the right to conduct or permit only the following: “The use of the property, and the construction or placing of buildings or structures, for non-profit and and non-profit educational purposes only, and for non-profit agricultural purposes and such limited commercial agricultural purposes as may be directly related to the permitted non-profit and non-profit educational uses of the property.”

Focusing on town bylaws, Mr. Rappaport said the Ag Hall could be used for events that are “customarily incidental to a permitted use.” For example, concerts and similar activities solely for raising funds for the MVAS, provided the impact on the neighborhood is limited.

Addressing the bylaw but not the APR, Mr. Rappaport said, “We are of the opinion that a small number of weddings could be deemed permitted on the property under the bylaw as an incidental use.”

Among other restrictions, he recommended that only five weddings be permitted in a calendar year; only weddings of a MVAS member in good standing for five years be permitted; a member of MVAS be present at each wedding at all times; and at least four weeks’ notice be given to selectmen, the chief of police, and the town conservation committee.

In addition, he said, three additional activities per year, for example the Vineyard Nursing Association auction, a birthday party, and the family Planning Art show could be deemed as incidental uses, he said.