Land Bank goes back to state with Ice House plan
The Martha's Vineyard Land Bank will try again to convince state environmental officials that a plan to provide public access to Ice House Pond in West Tisbury protects the quality of the pond and surrounding property.
Based on their previous public and written comments, a number of abutters and those who now enjoy pond access are likely to remain unconvinced.
Almost one year ago, Ellen Roy Herzfelder, Secretary of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (EOEA) rejected the conservation agency's plan for the pond. It was the first time in the public land conservation agency's then 19-year history that the state had failed to approve a submitted management plan.
Revised Land Bank plan for management of Ice House Pond property increases restrictions on use and access by public. Photo by Mae Deary
The opponents of the plan were well versed in environmental flash points and included Mark Mattson, a limnologist in the state Department of Environmental Protection and the husband of Judith Lane, a former owner of 5.9 acres on the pond that was purchased by the Land Bank through a straw buyer.
In her letter rejecting the plan, Secretary Herzfelder cited concerns over water quality and the collection of data, long-term monitoring programs, the location of wetland resource boundaries and the number of vehicle parking spaces.
Last week, the Land Bank submitted a revised management plan for the property it has since renamed Manaquayak Preserve, a change it said was intended to divert attention from the pond, to the office of Stephen R. Pritchard, appointed Secretary last year. The 113-page document incorporates data from several new studies and includes additional technical references to water quality data, and additional plant and insect inventories.
James Lengyel, Land Bank executive director, said the state requested additional technical data and the Land Bank responded to that request. The additional studies, including a hydrogeological study of the immediate watershed and an additional inventory of aquatic plants, cost the Land Bank $13,794
The rejected plan for the 11.1-acre property off Lambert's Cove Road called for an initial six-vehicle trailhead and allowed limited fishing.
The revised management plan reduces parking to four spaces plus one handicap space and eliminates fishing completely. The preserve hours would be reduced so the property would be open in season from 6 am to sunset, rather than a half hour before and after, respectively.
All Land Bank literature would encourage people to arrive by foot or bicycle.
Dogs would be permitted on a leash but not be allowed a dip in the pond. Human swimmers, no more than 20 at one time, would only be allowed to enter the water by means of a wooden swimming perch built out over the water in order to avoid stirring up sediment and protect the shoreline vegetation from swimmers who must keep off the sandy beach previously used by property visitors.
Launching of canoes and kayaks would not be allowed and a full-time Land Bank attendant would be assigned to keep watch over property use.
The management plan was presented at a public hearing on May 16 and as the subject of a West Tisbury Land Bank advisory board meeting on May 25.
The Ice House Pond purchase was accomplished through the use of a straw, an attorney acting as a buyer's agent. Land Bank commission and board members decided to mask the identity of the public land agency after they determined that the property was worth acquiring but a purchase would not be possible if their identity were known.
The Ice House Pond purchase in Nov. 2004 involved multiple sellers of three lots for a total purchase price of $2 million. The sellers were Judith Lane at $1,250,000 and Nancy Schwenkter and Mary-Robin Ravitch at $750,000.
The Land Bank intended to open the property last summer. Instead, an attendant was hired to keep people out and monitor pond activity, much of it by abutters, their guests and visitors, according to a 2005 summer monitoring report included in the revised plan.
The monitoring report noted that the Preserve has extensive existing use. It said that the paths and pond shoreline that the Land Bank proposes to take extensive measures to protect show evidence of use by walkers, all-terrain vehicles, and horseback riders.
The Land Bank attendants assigned to the property last summer also reported that pond visitors were observed, "wading and swimming with float toys and rafts in the shallows of the pond shore."
The report further noted: "The pond is accessed by the public without permission from the Preserve and by shoreline owners from their properties and used for swimming, boating and fishing."
Although the pleasure of canoeing or kayaking would be denied Land Bank visitors it is one of the selling points on a web site, oldhousepond.com, maintained by members of the Ravitch-Schwentker family. The site describes the various amenities of "four charming, spacious, and well-kept homes scattered in a forest setting on two shores of a secluded, freshwater pond."
In total, the homes provide 16 bedrooms, nine bathrooms,and sleep 36 people. Land Bank visitors would have to make do with one composting toilet.
More data needed
Throughout the course of the public, process the Land Bank has been the subject of harsh criticism from opponents both for concealing itself through the use of a straw and what they insist are shortcomings in the management plan.
In a five-page letter dated May 16, William Scherlis, an abutter and long-time seasonal resident, asked the Land Bank to keep the property closed pending further detailed studies of the impacts on the pond environment and character of the neighborhood.
He requested "collection of appropriate baseline environmental data on the pond and associated littoral zone," and "direct scientific assessment of the likely impact of the projected visitor population on the pond and the littoral zone for various degrees of access."
Summarizing, he wrote, "Yes, I am writing out of self-interest. But this is self-interest that has evolved over decades on the land and that is in harmony with the self-interest of nearly everyone in the pond community. Are we simply to accept what is a very likely radical change in the quality of our experience in our own home, with tranquility and peace giving way to noise and pollution?"
In a two-page letter dated May 13, Mr. Mattson and Ms. Lane said that the revised management plan failed to address numerous points raised by the Secretary of EOEA in the rejection of the old plan and provided only the bare minimum. Among other concerns they asked, "What will be done to assure protection of the New England Bluet damselfly?"
The couple also said that they were sadly surprised to see that while work was done to determine concentrations of nutrients, there was no analysis of the direction of groundwater flow and criticized the text on the chemistry and biology in the report, which they said, with apologies to Land Bank ecologist Julie Schaeffer, was "poorly written."
In a telephone conversation Monday evening, Mr. Mattson reiterated his concerns that the Land Bank is not hiring qualified outside experts when preparing the management plan and as a result continues to misinterpret the data.
In describing his objections Mr. Mattson referenced the rejection letter dated June 20, 2005, from Secretary Herzfelder. In her letter the secretary noted the review of the Land Bank plan by various state agencies and highlighted the comments of two people: Tim Simmons, a restoration ecologist with the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, who said that a single season of botanical survey work was not adequate; and Anne Monnelly, an aquatic ecologist with the Division of Conservation Resources, who said that additional baseline water quality data should be collected before opening the pond to the public.
"They seem to ignore what the secretary of EOEA is asking of them," said Mr. Mattson. "That's my major point."
Mr. Mattson said the pond is in relatively good shape and retains many of its natural characteristics. He said the Land Bank made a good move in purchasing the property but he objects to the proposed level of visitation.
Mr. Mattson said the first duty of the Vineyard should be protecting rare environmental types like the pond, not recreation. "On the Vineyard some of the best places you can visit are some of the places that are a little bit hard to get to," he said.
At the time the plan was rejected, several Land Bank commissioners suggested that the plan had received unusual scrutiny arising from the influence of abutters. Mr. Mattson said he was aware of the comments but dismissed the notion that he used his position to influence the secretary. "I have gone out of my way to always say that I am only commenting as a private citizen and it is ridiculous to think that as a staff member at DEP I would somehow have influence over the secretary of EOEA."
Asked about what influence he might have had with other staff, he said he and his wife spoke with Tim Simmons but did not know him personally at the time. "I only met him after our comments were submitted," he said, describing the occasion as a social meeting in late summer.
Mr. Mattson said that while he has close professional ties with Ms. Monnelly, who authored the DCR comments, the two had never discussed the pond.
In a telephone conversation yesterday, Mr. Simmons said he first met Mr. Mattson in late summer when he went to dinner at Mr. Mattson's house through the introduction of a mutual friend.
Mr. Simmons said that up to that point he had not spoken to Mr. Mattson or Ms. Lane. Mr. Simmons said he suspected he might have received e-mails from Ms. Lane regarding her comments on Ice House Pond but he did not recall any conversations prior to meeting the couple for dinner. "All I recollect is that she copied me on her comments," he said.
Call it appeasement
Land Bank officials insist that the management plan fully balances the concerns of abutters with public use. And they point to the Land Bank's unblemished history of property stewardship as evidence that any problems would be addressed.
Pam Goff, long-time Chilmark Land Bank commissioner and conservation commission member, said the plan provides for very minimal use of the property. She said the critics have focused on the science of the pond but that is not the real issue. "Their criticisms are all academic but the real crux of the matter is they don't want any public use of the pond," she said.
Ms. Goff said the first proposal was very modest but it was further reduced under pressure from opponents. "You might call it appeasement," she said.
Ms. Goff said the most intensive use of the pond now comes from abutters and their guests. "You talk to anybody and they've swum there," she said "and they weren't tip-toeing over the shore."
Ms. Goff said that as a member of the land bank commission and conservation commission she is used to seeing abutters use environmental issues to try and stop projects. This project is not any different she said.
"It is NIMBY [not in my backyard] with a big vocabulary," she said.
Tom Robinson, Tisbury Land bank commissioner said the revised management plan represents numerous concessions that he said were made in order to overcome the abutters' objections and get the plan approved at the state level. Mr. Robinson said that considering the scope of activity originally proposed the objections were unreasonable and unfair, particularly when viewed against the use of the pond by the other riparian owners.
"I think it is unfortunate that with these changes, which we felt we had to make to even get the property open for some minimal level of use, the public is not going to have the use of the pond that the rest of the riparian owners and renters have," said Mr. Robinson. "So the public can sit and watch the other people fish, boat, make noise and I wouldn't be surprised if they see some dog swimming around in there."
Bruce Keep, West Tisbury Land Bank advisory board chairman, said he thinks the advisory board listened to the abutters over the course of the approval process and made significant changes to the original plan to alleviate their concerns, not all of which were justified. "I think they have been unduly worried about the number of people that are going to come and the number of swimmers," he said. "I can't imagine a family bringing their children there for swimming when the kids can't even sit on the beach."
Mr. Keep said the property is likely to be used mostly as a beautiful spot to stop for a picnic lunch or take a short hike on a trail, or even skate on in the winter. He said the Land Bank understands the roads leading to the property are narrow and reduced parking in order to not add to the traffic problems. The advisory board relied heavily on expertise of the Land Bank staff for guidance, including Ms. Schaefer. "I think and the balance of us feel that she has done a really excellent job," Mr. Keep said.
Referring to the two house lots purchased by the Land Bank, Mr. Keep concluded, "What we are doing I think is going to be significantly less harmful to the pond and the area than the two trophy houses on those lots that could have been there."