At Large: Access ought to have been included in that conservation restriction

At Large: Access ought to have been included in that conservation restriction

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The Woods family made a generous gift of its roughly 500 acres of land, most of it in West Tisbury, some in Chilmark, to the Nature Conservancy (TNC). The gift came with a conservation restriction (CR), ultimately endorsed, as it needed to be, by the selectmen in each town. The CR is embodied in a legal document of some 21 pages detailing what may (not much) and may not (really, everything) happen on this rather common tract of mid-Island property. I say common, but in fact it’s rather uncommonly large and whole.

In the July 11 MV Times, Nelson Sigelman described the transaction [TNC says conservation restrictions prohibit walking trail link], the CR, and the failed effort of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank to extract from TNC permission to connect public conservation properties on either side of the Woods tract with a trail that would run along the edge of the Woods Preserve. The Woods gift was generous and valuable. No one would dispute either proposition. But, its value to the town, indisputable in some senses, is nevertheless arguable, particularly because there is almost no allowance for public access.

There are certainly beneficial real estate and income tax considerations for the Woods family. A fraction of those benefits may be revealed by an analysis of the real estate tax abatement that goes with the CR’s relinquishment of development rights attached to such a large undeveloped parcel. But, in fact, that value may be small, especially because, as is the practice in West Tisbury, where the bulk of the property is located, assessors set a high value on the residential portions of the property — in the Woods case, there are buildings and as yet unbuilt residential construction sites — and lowering the value on what assessors call “excess acreage,” which in the Woods case is hundreds of acres. So the family’s real estate tax bill was already lower than it might have been if the entire parcel were assessed at its market value as developable land.

The Seven Gates community, whose property is many times larger than the Woods tract, is a case in point. The combination of lower assessed value on “excess acreage” there, plus an agricultural preservation restriction on additional acreage, reduced Seven Gates’s overall assessment by about $5 million, or about $26,000 in revenue were it all valued as residential property and taxed at the current $5.26 per thousand rate.

In any case, in a town whose overall land value is now reduced by almost 50 percent because of preserved and protected land, and on an Island where significant development of open parcels is a thing of the pre-1974, pre-Martha’s Vineyard Commission past, the value of big additions to the undevelopable land category may not be significant in the way of real estate tax revenue or the cost of goods and services when new development takes place. That familiar debate — cost of development vs. the savings when land is not developed — is hardly resolved.

Importantly, when the selectmen in Chilmark and West Tisbury endorsed the CR on the Woods property, none of them knew what was the net real estate tax revenue loss to the town, nor did they consider whether the benefits of the vast, unbuilt acreage outweighed that tax loss.

Not that the decision would have or should have turned on the calculation. But, it might have stiffened the spines of the town officials who asked for public access and genuflected meekly when they learned they couldn’t have any. (Excepting Jonathan Mayhew of Chilmark, bless him.) None of them and none of us are persuaded that the value of that vast tract lies in its usefulness as a scientific locus for habitat and species studies that would be impossible if a few Islanders and even fewer visitors could follow a trail along the edge to connect the Land Bank’s Wascosim’s Rock Preserve and the Agricultural Society property where the annual fair takes place, also a gift — and an immensely valuable one to all Islanders and their guests — from the Woods family.

It is worth keeping in mind that the portions of the entire tract — all of a piece in terms of its habitat and species values — are reserved by the Woods family for its own residential and agricultural pursuits and for some limited development. Indeed, everything that is prohibited on the Preserve’s property on which the grantor does not retain future development rights — and everything that is prohibited is just about everything that anyone would imagine doing — is allowed on the reserved lots.

It is also worth considering whether the selectmen could have been more forceful in demanding some limited public rights to the acreage. First, pressing for such a right in exchange for the CR grant, would have recognized that the Woodses and their successors, conservation- and preservation-minded as they without question are, were unlikely to ravish the land in development if the CR was denied.

Second, the language of the CR itself opens the door to a limited public use. The preamble in the CR document to the exhausting list of prohibited uses makes a modest claim for its purpose: “it is Grantor’s [the Woods family] intention to set aside a significant portion of the property as a nature and wildlife preserve.” The language may contemplate the reserve of rights to some of the land for Woods family continued use. But, it may also have had in mind the state of Massachusetts’s hostility — although muted and negotiable — to CRs that do not open some portion of the property, in some way, to public use, however limited.

The language does not say all of the 500 or so acres. It does not say all but the portions reserved for the Woods family to do as it likes. It says “significant portion.” And, how much is that? Could it be all of the land except the Woods family reserve and a tiny strip along the edge where visitors may walk without disturbing the habitat and the rare and flourishing species. I think the selectmen, when the CR was set in place, and TNC and Vineyard Conservation Society today, ought to read the language as giving latitude for some public access.

As Mr. Sigelman reported last week, Edward Woods Jr., who lives on his parents’ ranch in California but visited the family home off North Road in West Tisbury recently, doubts that the family would agree to relax the restrictions that prohibit public access. He invoked the predisposition of the many-headed to make a mess to explain that posture.

“The amount of ground that is disrupted was not in my grandmother’s thought process, was not in my parents’ thought process,” he told Mr. Sigelman, “and we prefer the thing being left in the natural state, as opposed to being another trail with a bit of litter here and there and the dogs here and there and the bicycle tracks here and there, and the wanderings off the trail, the carvings on the trees, the knocked-over stone walls here and there, if a trail went nearby them. We just prefer it in its natural state.”

The careless and unwashed among us recognize this description of our practices. It’s a common theme. Happily, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank’s careful stewardship of its vast public lands — several times more vast than the Woods property — has demonstrated conclusively that there is no good reason to credit such blather.

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