The latest exchange in the years-long contretemps between dog owners and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission over Trade Wind Fields Preserve — “Tradewinds” in local argot — took place last Wednesday when about 20 dog owners crammed into Oak Bluffs conservation agent Liz Durkee’s office for a meeting of the Oak Bluffs Land Bank advisory board. The topic of discussion was a proposed post-and-wire fence to keep people on the trail that encircles the 71.8-acre parcel, and off of the taxiway and runway that crisscross the expansive grass airfield. Advisory board chairman Tom Zinno ran the meeting, which kept a civil tone, albeit strained at times.
Since being established by an act of the state legislature in 1986, the Land Bank has acquired open space for preservation and public recreation on the Vineyard, funded by a 2 percent transfer tax on most property transactions. Over the years, Trade Wind Fields Preserve has evolved into the most popular dog park on the Island, drawing dog owners daily from all six towns. An informal but close-knit group has evolved, which has its own Facebook page, with 311 members. “It is, by far, the most used Land Bank property,” Matthew Dix, Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank foreman, said.
The preserve land is also home to rare flora and fauna, three of which — New England blazing star, sandplain blue-eyed grass, and purple tiger beetle — are designated as species of “special concern” by the National Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP), and also to purple needlegrass, which is classified as “threatened.” The New England blazing star was just discovered this summer by Land Bank biologist Julie Russell.
Mr. Dix said the addition of a part-time park monitor employed this spring to keep people on the perimeter trail seemed to work, but only when she was present. He said a post-and-wire fence would provide the necessary protection, and was a visually unintrusive option. The fence was approved this spring as part of the Land Bank Management Plan. The final decision now rests with the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, which has yet to decide on a permit for the fence.
“I applied to National Heritage for the fence, and they requested that the property be surveyed,” Ms. Russell said. “We spent most of the summer conducting various surveys. It’s a pretty extensive process when you have rare species. There are very few sandplain grasslands.”
Dog walkers argued that the vast majority of them follow Land Bank rules and stick to the trails, and that a fence was unnecessary, unsafe, and a blight on the land, which runs contrary to the Land Bank Commission ethos.
“You mentioned a hearing where you said [the monitor’s] presence had little effect,” Jane Hawkes of West Tisbury said. “I don’t remember any such hearing, but what I do know from going every day is that 95 percent of the people adhere to the new rules, and it looks a lot better. So I don’t see the reason for this fence when it’s clear that people are pretty much following the rules. You can’t have 100 percent compliance.”
“People have been walking Tradewind preserve for the past 40-plus years, and admittedly the Land Bank wasn’t paying that much attention, and it’s only in the last two or three years that you’ve been trying to change people’s behavior,” Oak Bluffs resident Mark Jenkins said. “Old habits die hard. The fact of the matter is, compliance is about 95 percent. As a result of that, the property has completely changed. It is so much better than it was before. It’s stunning — the completely open vista, the blowing grasses, the big sky, there’s nothing more beautiful. The idea to people who go there and enjoy it that there’s going to be this blight on the landscape of this fence is galling to us, particularly when we’ve seen it improve so much. People are complying and the place has improved, and now you’re saying you’re going to build a 1.4-mile fence on this pristine area. It’s incredibly disappointing.”
Mr. Jenkins asked Mr. Dix if he agreed that the fields have improved considerably in recent years.
“It obviously looks healthy,” Mr. Dix said. “My staff has pulled [a lot of] pine trees out of there this year. And we also had a nice rainfall year. It does look much nicer.”
“So then don’t build this big, bad, ugly fence in one of the most beautiful spots in Oak Bluffs,” Mr. Jenkins said.
“We want to cooperate, we really do, but my question is, How does one five-foot-wide path over the taxiway disrupt the ecology of the entire habitat?” Tisbury resident Sasha Brunelle said.
“Every inch of that habitat is considered protected habitat,” Ms. Russell said. “I’ve been doing this for 19 years and monitoring the plants out there, and I can attest there were places where trails were created and those plants no longer exist. It is not acceptable from National Heritage for any of those species to be harmed. They have a strict zero-tolerance policy on [damaging] protected species. Tiger beetles will not be able to make it to their second year and have their babies because they are burrowing into that loose soil, if people are continually walking on that ground. ”
Mr. Jenkins also called into question the recently formed “aviation advisory board” assembled by Mr. Dix. “To suggest that dog owners are hostile to planes landing and that’s another reason to build this fence, so people can fly in and have lunch at Farm Neck, while year-round residents peer over the fence while they land their planes? It’s galling.”
Although logistics were still to be worked out, the most likely scenario was that pilots would be given a combination to a locked gate after receiving permission to land at the airfield.
Oak Bluffs resident Richard Seelig, who is also a pilot, said despite its rustic charm, Tradewind would never be a busy airstrip.
Mr. Jenkins contended that over the years, the use of the property as an airfield has declined sharply. “If you quadrupled the number of planes landing there, you’d have maybe one plane landing there a week, and for that, you’re going to build this fence?”
Several people also questioned the damage done by landing planes, vis-à-vis rambling dogs. “The pressure of soft airplane tires is much less than someone standing on that spot,” said Mr. Dix, eliciting some skeptical grumbling from the audience.
One attendee suggested that rather than seeking advice from an aviation committee, a committee comprised of a cross-section of people who use the property could be more beneficial to inform evenhanded policy decisions.
Repeatedly, attendees urged the Land Bank advisory board members to postpone construction of a fence, and to see if the health of the preserve continues to improve with the current protocol of signs and self-policing.
“It’s disappointing that the board isn’t standing up for some kind of common-sense compromise and also standing up for local residents who use the property,” Mr. Jenkins said. “It’s really sad that this beautiful property is being scarred by a 1.4-mile fence.”
“I’m not a fan of having a fence either,” Mr. Zinno said. “But we have to solve this problem, and this is what the staff came back with. The basis of the Land Bank owning this property was to stop the building that was going to happen, protect the water source, and protect the species that live there. Public access will continue.”
The four of the seven-member advisory board present voted to continue deliberating and to take a nonbinding vote when more of them were in attendance. “If we’re going to vote on any changes, I’d like to see what the plan is,” Mr. Zinno said.
An online “Petition to Fight the Fence” posted on Tuesday had 90 signatures as of Wednesday morning.
Over the years, different measures have been taken to keep people on the perimeter trails at Tradewind.
Mr. Dix tried various forms of signage to explain why the runway and taxiway were off-limits. The first signs gently asked people not to cross, with detailed ecological explanations. They were ineffective.
A subsequent series of “DO NOT ENTER” signs inflamed more than they informed. They were often uprooted, and their message was often dismissed.
As The Times reported in a Nov. 5, 2014, article, “Land Bank seeks to curb dog walkers at Trade Wind Fields Preserve,” Mr. Dix held a series of meetings with dog owners to explain the rationale behind the Land Bank policy.
Although the conversations were cordial, subsequent signage was also plucked from the sandplain soil, and the message frequently ignored.
Early this year, a “User’s Guide” was handed out to dog owners, showing the species of flora and fauna that inhabit the runway and taxiway areas at Tradewind. The “User’s Guide” stated, “Keep in mind that Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission allows people to walk their dogs on this property but does not consider Trade Wind Fields Preserve to be a dog park.”
“Rules of Use” were posted and distributed to dog owners. In addition to restating the runway and taxiway policy, dog walkers were reminded to pick up after their pooches and to properly dispose of the bags. The Land Bank added more doggie-bag stations, and maintains them. Mr. Dix said the Land Bank hauls about 70 pounds of dog waste every two weeks from the waste stations.
A new “three strikes” policy was also explained in the “Rules of Use.” First offense is a “friendly reminder,” second offense is a warning, and a third offense results in a call to Oak Bluffs Police, “who will respond and cite you for trespass.” According to Massachusetts state law, the maximum penalty for trespassing on private property is a $100 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
Last February, the Land Bank hired a part-time monitor, Patty Culkins of Edgartown, to step into the breach and be the bearer of the “friendly reminder.”
Mr. Dix said her presence had only limited impact because of Ms. Culkin’s limited hours.
“What’s the point of spending $12,000 on a part-time person when we could put up a fence and be done with the whole thing?” he said.
The Land Bank paid $2.75 million for the property in 1989, deconstructing the plans of developers Ed Jigarjian and Joe Esco, who intended to build 32 condos, a clubhouse with indoor pool, tennis courts, and 12 2,500-square-foot homes.