Stevens family's far-reaching gifts - a model for others
Two local non-profit organizations have received welcome financial gifts this winter, thanks to the generosity and vision of a couple whose hearts belonged to the Vineyard. Featherstone Center for the Arts and the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank (MVLB) have received a total of $365,321.38 from a charitable remainder trust established by William H. Y. "Bill" and Mary Stevens several years before their deaths. Along with praising the Stevenses for their generosity and farsightedness, those involved say they hope their carefully planned gift will become a model for individuals seeking to support other non-profit groups in the future.
The Stevenses, who owned Featherstone Farm in Oak Bluffs before selling the property in 1996 to the Land Bank and Meetinghouse, Inc. (a group that for years had sought a space for an arts center), had the proceeds from that sale placed into a charitable remainder trust. The funds were invested and an annuity paid out to the couple. The terms stated that, after their deaths, the balance remaining after all expenses would go to the two community organizations. Mary Stevens died in Jan., 2003. Her husband's death in June, 2006 set in motion the process that would bring windfalls of $218,000 to Featherstone and another $147,321.38 to the MVLB.
After retiring, Bill and Mary Stevens spent much of their time outdoors. Photos courtesy of Sharon Grunden
"There was so much generosity and foresight it was really remarkable," commented James Lengyel, executive director of the land conservation agency.
Sharon Grunden of Oak Bluffs, one of Bill and Mary Stevens's five grown children, described her mother as a passionate artist who "loved every art form she got her hands on...She taught us all to love art." She said that her dad had a deeply held interest in nature and conservation. He had been a stage manager in high school, she said, and continued his appreciation for the theater in later years.
Arts and the outdoors had a big part in the children's growing-up years, she said, recalling doing art and crafts with her mother, blazing hiking trails with her dad, and enjoying family trips to the theater to see many shows including "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest" and "The Nutcracker."
Love for the Island
Most of all, Sharon stressed her parents' abiding love of the Island. Bill Stevens's parents had purchased Harthaven property in the 1920s. After summering here at the family home throughout his childhood, Mr. Stevens built his own Harthaven house nearby as a young man in 1949. His bride quickly learned to love it here too, especially for the opportunity and inspiration it afforded for the artwork she cared so much about.
Bill and Mary Stevens as a young married couple in 1941.
Although they lived in several locations off-Island over the years, where Bill was a teacher and his wife a working artist, they always returned to the Vineyard when vacations came. They winterized their Island home in the 1980s and when it was time to retire the couple settled in here year-round.
In 1979 they had purchased Featherstone, a busy and well-established horse farm where Ann Bowes bred horses and offered riding lessons. The couple never lived on the property, but it was a place where their daughter Mary Lyn could fulfill her ambition to run a horse farm. Sharon herself lived there for a time, doing pottery and building the kiln that is still fired up with much ceremony once each year. Although retired, as full-time residents the couple's connection to the Vineyard deepened. Mary was increasingly active in the arts, joining the Noepe Fiber Fellowship, painting prolifically, and even designing sets for Children's Theatre productions. Bill's participation ranged from sailing to serving on the Oak Bluffs Conservation Commission, training as an EMT, and using his past school experience and enthusiasm for the sport to lend a hand to organizers of the local youth soccer program. As time went on, they sought a way to help the home they loved even after they were gone. "They were both wanting to do something nice for the Island, to give something back to the community," said Ms. Grunden.
A perfect match
Along with the Stevens's determination to preserve their property for the public good, it was the commitment of Peggy Pinney - then Peggy Vance, who was president of Meetinghouse, Inc. - that brought the vision to fruition. Ms. Pinney, who now is office administrator for the Nature Conservancy's Island Office, recalled the negotiations when Featherstone became available for sale. Although Meetinghouse, Inc. was very interested in acquiring the property, the task of raising the sale price of $500,000 was daunting. In addition, the group realized that although it could make good use of the buildings, it did not need extensive acreage. Ms. Pinney approached Mr. Lengyel, suggesting the Land Bank acquire a portion of the property.
"The Land Bank was a perfect match," she said. "There are a lot of advantages to working with the Land Bank."
Four generations of the Stevens family gathered at Featherstone for a wedding celebration. (From left) Mary Stevens, William H. Y. "Bill" Stevens holding his grandson, William H. Y. Stevens Ill, William H. Y. Stevens Jr., and Ryan William Stevens.
Along with buying the larger part of the farm, the agency instituted cooperative maintenance and land improvement plans with the arts group, and leased part of the open space to farmers to continue the tradition of agriculture there. The Land Bank also holds a conservation restriction on a small section of open land within the Featherstone acreage. Ms. Pinney added that with the Land Bank involved, no matter what changes Featherstone might undergo in the future, the bulk of the property would always be preserved.
MVLB records show that the conservation agency purchased18 acres on Barnes Road, Oak Bluffs, from the couple in August, 1996, paying $200,000. Meetinghouse, Inc. acquired the core of the property, 6.2 acres including several buildings, for $300,000. In time the property was named Featherstone Center for the Arts. The monies paid by both agencies went directly into a charitable remainder trust.
Bill, who along with his many other talents was savvy about legal and financial matters, became familiar with the concept of a charitable remainder trust and had enlisted his Boston law firm to execute the agreement.
Ms. Pinney said the arrangement represents an unusual and efficient way for a property owner to plan in a way that benefits many parties. She explained that unlike leaving property to children who then must sell it and pay capital gains taxes, this method allowed for the couple to use income from the trust to purchase life insurance policies benefiting their children, and to help two public organizations as well.
"This is a win/win situation for the land owner, the children, and for the protection of open space," Ms. Pinney said. "This is a way to preserve family property for the benefit of the public and still pass something on to the children."
"I think it's very nice, it's great," Ms. Grunden said about her parents' disposition of their Featherstone property. "It seems to be thriving and I hope the Island continues to support it."
Francine Kelly, executive director at Featherstone, said that that the bulk of the recent gift will go to grow the center's endowment fund. A small portion of the interest will be available to help with operating expenses. She stressed, as did others involved with the organization, that Featherstone should not be considered wealthy as a result of the gift. Instead, the investment of the funds will help provide a modest income to help support an already trim budget. She explained that deciding how much of the endowment to use will be based on a set formula, with no more than five percent of the three year income average to be spent.
According to Ms. Kelly, Featherstone functions entirely on donations and small revenues from class tuitions and art sales. She noted that the center keeps only 30 percent of the proceeds when artwork is sold, in order to be supportive to the artists.
Ms. Kelly said that the future direction for Featherstone will be decided in response to the wishes of both the art community and the Vineyard community as a whole. Plans call for a meeting of all interested artists in May to discuss how Featherstone might grow to best suit their needs. Some have already made suggestions, including the establishment of a gallery space large enough to accommodate retrospective exhibits for individual artists, a dedicated space for photography shows, and a facility where artists could reproduce their work. The center is looking forward to creating a strategic plan in the near future to determine its next steps.
"It was very generous of the Stevenses to work with Meetinghouse and the Land Bank to make this happen," said Ms. Kelly. "It is bittersweet in that they are not here, but it is something they wanted to happen."
Years after the Land Bank and Meetinghouse acquired the farm, both groups are delighted with their acquisitions, which, thanks to Bill and Mary Stevens, have ended up with extraordinarily cut-rate price tags.
"Featherstone Farm is beautiful in its own right," said Mr. Lengyel. "We've been able to keep agricultural use there and it has turned into a nexus for trail systems."
And those who have settled into Featherstone Center for the Arts are thrilled at being able to provide a haven for countless Island artists and art lovers of all ages, and now to have more confidence about their future stability.
"As I look at it it's a win/win/ win/win situation," said Jean McCarthy, Featherstone's current president, pointing out that the charitable remainder trust brought benefit to the Stevenses, their children, and the two agencies. "I can't believe we were the first institution to do this. I hope we become a model for others." She said that having the additional funds building the endowment's growth potential is a step towards the future improvement and expansion of the center.
A simple wooden bench on the hillside at Featherstone honors Mary Stevens, and a picnic table with a plaque for Bill Stevens will soon be placed nearby - fitting memorials for a couple who loved the arts, nature, and Martha's Vineyard.