20 years, $100M later, Land Bank has created a 'conservation mosaic'
James Lengyel, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank Commission, hopes Islanders will help his agency celebrate its 20th anniversary by taking a hike - camera in hand. Beginning on May 12, the agency's official birthday, and through Sept. 15, the Land Bank is sponsoring an amateur photography contest.
"We're asking people to photograph on Land Bank property," Mr. Lengyel said, "or a view from Land Bank property, that is either exceptionally beautiful or shows people enjoying nature. The winner gets something that I think is rather neat: They get their photograph on the cover of the next Land Bank map, with credit. The second- and third-place winners get their photographs published inside."
James Lengyel, the Land Bank's director for 17 of its 20 years, visits the North Neck Highlands Preserve, one of his favorite Land Bank properties. Photos by Sara Piazza
Mr. Lengyel, who has led the Land Bank for 17 of its first 20 years, sat for an interview last Thursday at the agency's Edgartown offices. He began by putting his role in perspective: "It's the commissioners who make all the decisions. Our job is to bring all of the information that's necessary to the table, and then to sit back. The accomplishments of this agency are the commissioners' accomplishments, and the advisory committees' accomplishments."
The story of the Land Bank's first 20 years is measured in dollars - more than $100 million in revenues raised to date by the two per cent fee on most real estate transactions -and in precious acreage - nearly 2,700 acres preserved for public enjoyment forever.
Ask Mr. Lengyel which of the land Land Bank's 61 properties is his favorite, and he'll remind you that for a parent, every child is the favorite. He genuinely loves each parcel, big and small, and can speak of Land Bank properties with the richness of vocabulary that an oenophile brings to a tasting. Hear him describing the Land Bank's Hickory Cove property on Chappaquiddick:
Mr. Lengyel and his five-year-old daughter Roxi enjoyed a Land Bank walk.
"It's a crest right over Cape Poge Bay, with several developed lots. The Land Bank has purchased it with the goal of undeveloping it. When you come from a slough, approaching the property, you come over this hill, and the bay and the sky just plunge into view. You don't expect it, but what's coming just shocks you."
Mr. Lengyel said without any air of bragging that over the years, he has set foot on every acre of Martha's Vineyard: "I just like unusual, beautiful places. And it's exciting to be in a place that has such variety in the landscape."
Places and Names
He loves the names of Island places, it seems, almost as much as he loves the places themselves. "Naming new properties is the Land Bank advisory board's decision," he says. "But I feel that it's my role, and the staff's, to go to the history books and find out what are the names that apply to this area, and then say, here are some candidates - pick one."
Poring over a map, he can exclaim over favorite names of Island places: "Tashmoo, Quansoo, Wasque - we have poetry in our ordinary language. So when the Land Bank advisory board chooses a name that's insipid, it is enormously wounding to me."
"Sepiessa Point: There is a beautiful name that lay dormant for years, and now it's alive again. It's poetry on the land. People are inspired by the land here, they're inspired by their environment, and it comes out not only in how beautiful the land is, but also in how they label these places."
As James Lengyel speaks them, these names are terms of endearment. Pointing at the map, he said, "I can't deny that I think this is a beautiful name: Weahtaqua Springs. That was an old name for the head of the Lagoon."
And behind the beautiful name is a beautiful story. The property now known as Weahtaqua Springs was once where Ed Redstone, one-time owner of the Martha's Vineyard National Bank, had controversial development plans. Mr. Lengyel recalled with satisfaction how the Land Bank acquired those 42 acres:
"I think the Land Bank prioritized that property at one of its first meetings. That's the land that was supposed to be a bank and supermarket, remember? The Land Bank worked for years to try to interest the owner in a sale. The owner declined, year after year. But this property cradles the town well, so it's of vital importance to the water supply in Oak Bluffs. So we kept it on our top list, and we waited patiently. One day in 1999 a realtor called to say she'd just gotten this listing. And after 14 years or so of waiting, we closed the deal in hours."
Another favorite story is the acquisition of Peaked Hill in Chilmark. To appreciate how gleefully Mr. Lengyel savors it, you need to understand that he is, by his own admission, famously frugal.
"The Land Bank purchased that property," Mr. Lengyel recalled, "at a sealed-envelope auction in 1992. The price was $10,000 per acre. We bought 70 acres surrounding the highest point on the Island for $10,000 per acre! I'm really elated about how economically the Land Bank accomplished this. And the other part I like about it is that the person who was next in line, whose bid we bested, was so indignant at having lost to the public sector that he sued the Land Bank on some grounds or other - and the court vindicated the Land Bank. I think that was a triumph for the Island."
Over the agency's first two decades, Mr. Lengyel said, the Land Bank found itself facing many issues for the first time. "The Land Bank has a very technical law, and it operates in a highly charged political environment. And the commissioners have been explicit, since my first moment here, that they are attuned very closely to their constituents' wishes. With these three items, to mesh them together and make a coherent institution is going to take some analysis, some experimentation, some theorizing and just some practical experience. So we had a lot to learn."
One realization that has become central for the Land Bank is that the business of managing properties is inseparable from the business of acquiring new ones, according to Mr. Lengyel. "We've always thought that land management is actually part of acquisition planning," he said. "We know what sort of properties we'd like to acquire because they're beautiful. But we're not going to be able to acquire them, no matter how much we admire them, unless there's a general public consensus that the Land Bank can manage its properties well, so sellers feel they are doing something responsible by selling to the Land Bank."
Another central aspect of planning for future purchases has to do with setting priorities and not being distracted by what Mr. Lengyel calls "baubles," properties that pop up on the market but do not fit the agency's long-term plans. To that end, he said, the Land Bank tracks its cash flow carefully and maintains a list of opportunities that aren't yet available, but need to be seized when they arise.
"A good example of this," he said, "is Tiasquam River Reservation. It was on the Chilmark list since 1991, and we always hoped it would become available. And we are so careful with our finances that when it did become available at $8,300,000, we had $8,300,000 in the bank for it. And I think that's an example of a success story, because another organization might have been tempted away by lesser properties in the prior five or 10 years. The Land Bank didn't do that because we knew that there were choice properties that would someday be available."
The regional view
Mr. Lengyel is pleased that the Land Bank is one of the best-functioning regional agencies on Martha's Vineyard. Far from being frustrated over being answerable to six town advisory committees, he actively enjoys the agency's structure. "Because we have six jurisdictions here," he said, "you can have six different ways of imagining your properties, and they can be tailored to your towns' wishes."
And he feels the allocation of revenues, half to member towns and half to a central fund, has worked out wonderfully. "I think the town advisory boards are one of the most important things the Land Bank has in its structure, because it ensures that everything you do has the town's blessing. If the Land Bank did not have the advisory boards and their separate funds, but just one common pool, I think there'd be so much more wrangling. And those town boards have all proved to be generous when there's a big property that everybody likes.
"This is truly a regional organization: There is all the local control that's necessary, and yet there has been regional cooperation for two decades now. That's an accomplishment in itself, isn't it?"
Housing and the future
The Land Bank has had increasing success, in recent years, in working cooperatively with Island affordable housing agencies. What has eased this work greatly, Mr. Lengyel said, is the growth and evolution of those agencies. "The affordable housing groups have organized themselves into their own institutions, with staff and finances and the ability to make decisions in a quick way. That was a tremendous benefit to us, because you could actually put together a deal and not have to hope that the other side could find some way to put things together. They are able to work as fast as we work."
For all its millions in guaranteed annual revenue, the Land Bank remains a lean, mean, land acquisition machine. In recent years, the agency has been spending just 3 percent of its revenues on administration and 4 percent on land management. About 35 percent a year goes to debt service, and the rest to new acquisitions.
And in Mr. Lengyel's view, there is no shortage of opportunities for continued land conservation work. "Do you really feel that all of the outdoor experiences you want to have on the Vineyard have already been met? There's no more land that you really think qualifies for conservation?
"It's hard for me to imagine that the majority of Islanders are ready to say that their outdoor interests have been so well defended by the Land Bank that no more needs to be done. This Island is made up of people who like the outside.
"I feel what the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank has done in its first 20 years is to create a conservation mosaic, or archipelago, more or less out of whole cloth. The Land Bank has put together these greenbelts that weren't there before. And what I'd envision for the next 20 years is that the Land Bank will stitch those greenbelts together even more effectively, so they are broader, longer, deeper, more meaningful. I don't think the Land Bank will alter its ambitions in any way with the passing of time - it will just expand upon what it has always felt was right for the Island."