At Ice House Pond - no dip for you
Nearby abutters and weekly tenants of four waterfront rental houses bordering Ice House Pond may look forward to a summer dip. But the cool fresh water may remain off limits to guests of the largest pondside property owner, the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank.
Last July the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (EOEA) approved a revised Land Bank management plan that provided swimming access for no more than 20 visitors to the Land Bank property, which borders the 11.6-acre West Tisbury pond. But in an unprecedented action, the state agency added a set of four conditions to the approval.
The most significant condition places all responsibility on the Land Bank for maintaining the pond's water quality within limits set by the state. That includes measurements for nitrates and phosphorus, chemicals normally associated with septic systems and fertilizer.
Ice House Pond in winter, skim ice extending across its surface. A favorite spot for swimming in the summer, Ice House sometimes offers great skating this time of year. Photos by Ralph Stewart
Last week, Land Bank ecologist Julie Schaeffer told The Times that the results from Land Bank water testing conducted last summer and fall, while the property was still closed to the public, revealed that the phosphorous level has already been exceeded and the nitrogen level is close to the maximum set by the state. As it stands now, public swimming this summer may be prohibited before the first visitor has even arrived at the 11-acre property, named Manaquayak Preserve.
"We continue to study our options, because we know that this is a beautiful property that people would like to visit," said Land Bank executive director James Lengyel.
Land Bank management plans are submitted to EOEA for approval. In 2005, then-secretary Ellen Roy Herzfelder rejected the first Ice House Pond plan, the first time in the public land conservation agency's 19-year history that the state had failed to approve a submitted management plan.
Last April, the Land Bank submitted a revised management plan that included a provision to allow swimming and set phosphorous levels at 24 micrograms per liter.
A private owner or renter enjoys an Ice House kayak tour last summer.
In the event that the level was exceeded, the management plan called for study to determine if swimming was the cause. Nitrogen and phosphorous are found at varying levels in kettle ponds such as Ice House, water bodies without natural outlets such as a stream or brook. Nutrients may enter a pond in a variety of ways, such as surface rain runoff or groundwater.
In a three-page letter dated July 24, 2006, EOEA Secretary Stephen Pritchard approved the conservation agency's property management plan. For the first time in 20 years, EOEA approval of a Land Bank plan came with a set of conditions.
Secretary Pritchard's water quality conditions included a requirement that pond phosphorous concentrations not exceed 12 micrograms per liter (m/l) and total nitrogen concentrations not exceed 0.37 milligrams per liter (mg/l). He also put the responsibility for meeting those goals squarely with the Land Bank.
Based on staff recommendations, Mr. Pritchard wrote that should the levels be exceeded, the Land Bank must suspend swimming from its property "until a comprehensive pond watershed analysis is completed to determine the sources and levels of nutrient inputs and an action plan is developed to address these sources."
He said that if swimming is determined to be a significant source of nutrient input, it should be discontinued until state water quality goals could be met, and then reintroduced only at a level consistent with those goals.
Land Bank test results for phosphorous received in November from water samples taken April through October 2006 revealed a level of between 10.31 micrograms per liter in April and 13.31 micrograms in July.
Nitrogen levels for the same period averaged about 0.35 milligrams per liter, she said, slightly under the upper limit set by the state.
Based on the state conditions, the Land Bank must now conduct a comprehensive study to show that swimming is not the source of pollution despite the fact that the property has not yet been opened to the public.
"I think they [state officials] will be surprised," said Ms. Schaeffer. "I do not think that they intentionally tried to set low limits."
Ms. Schaeffer said that when the state realizes it has set a limit that is already below existing conditions, she expects it will work with the Land Bank to set a more reasonable limit.
"I do not know how to proceed with a big study to look at swimming when we don't have swimming yet," she said. "Really, what we would be doing is a study to see who is polluting the pond."
While she could not estimate how long that would take, she said it would undoubtedly be expensive. The lack of any easily accessible sources, such as streams or runoff, would require studying groundwater sources, she said.
Possible sources could include a failed septic system or overuse of a system. Whatever the sources, she said, it is not related to Land Bank use.
Ms. Schaeffer said that by itself, swimming would be unlikely to affect the pond. John Portnoy, an ecologist with the Cape Cod National Seashore North Atlantic coastal laboratories, said that phosphorous levels in the seashore's 20 kettle ponds vary widely depending on a variety of conditions. He said that while many factors influence phosphorous levels, studies have shown that swimming activity contributes very little to those levels.
Efforts to provide public access to Ice House Pond have been met by considerable opposition from abutters and former property owners, including one couple well placed to comment on the management plan.
The Ice House Pond purchase in November 2004 was accomplished through the use of a straw buyer in order to mask the Land Bank's interest from multiple sellers who, the Land Bank said, would likely not have sold to the public agency. The total purchase price was $2 million, and the sellers were Judith Lane at $1,250,000 and Nancy Schwenkter and Mary-Robin Ravitch at $750,000.
Ms. Lane is the wife of Mark Mattson, a limnologist in the state Department of Environmental Protection, one of the agencies that provided the recommendations that shaped the state conditions.
In letters to the Land Bank and EOEA, the husband and wife were highly critical of the Land Bank purchase and the management plan. Mr. Mattson, who works closely with state environmental personnel, repeatedly noted that his comments were those of a private citizen.
Several of the requests and points made by Mr. Mattson and Ms. Lane in letters to EOEA emerged in the conditions. In a letter dated June 20, 2006, Ms. Lane said the Land Bank was "a dysfunctional organization desperately in need of more stringent oversight by the state" and overly concerned with public access.
"The commissioners' continual insistence in the media that the public should be entitled to the same level of use as the surrounding homeowners is unprofessional and childish," she wrote. "Public lands almost always require more stringent restrictions than private, abutting lands as they have the potential for considerably more use."
She asked that any significant increase in access be subject to EOEA review and approval. Conditions two and three require that the Land Bank seek EOEA approval for any increase of the four parking spaces allowed or the 20-visitor limit. Normally, increases are a local matter.
Tom Robinson of Tisbury, Land Bank commission chairman, said that the commissioners have not discussed what to do next, but, he said, the conditions as they exist are fundamentally unfair, given the proposed level of public use and the Land Bank's plan, which does not envision development that could have occurred under private ownership. He said the conditions attached to EOEA approval were "a poison pill."
Oak Bluffs Land Bank commissioner Priscilla Sylvia said Tuesday that the conditions are unfairly weighted against the public and the Land Bank, given the level and types of prior private use of the pond by abutters and their visitors. She said that private abutters should be required to curtail their activities in the same way that the Land Bank is being asked to do.
She said it would be more productive if the people who object to public use would help their neighbors to improve conditions around the pond for everyone.
"The protection of the pond only occurred after the public was going to be able to use it in a very small way," she said.
Ms. Sylvia said that two house and guesthouses could have easily been built on the Manaquayak Preserve property, with no restrictions on use. She said the abutters are very lucky and should be happy to work with the Land Bank, because it is protecting their pond.
She said many members of the public are unaware of the intensity of use by nearby rental properties. She added that she has also heard from many Islanders who had used the pond in the past without permission.
The management plan rejected in 2005 called for an initial six-vehicle trailhead and allowed limited fishing. The management plan that was ultimately approved with conditions reduced parking to four spaces, plus one handicap space, and eliminated fishing completely.
Human swimmers may enter the water only 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 is not allowed.
Although the pleasures of canoeing or kayaking are 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."
A quote from a former renter identified only as Darren from New York reads, "We've tried Edgartown, Chilmark and Maine, but we're ready to swim in that fantastic pond again."