Land Bank says insider influenced pond review
The Martha's Vineyard Land Bank commission has asked the Secretary of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (EOEA) to reconsider restrictions imposed by his predecessor in the Romney administration that would limit or prevent public use of Ice House Pond in West Tisbury. (See related story here.)
In a letter to EOEA Secretary Ian Bowles dated March 5, Land Bank commission chairman Tom Robinson of Tisbury said that the effect of the conditions was to prevent the public from swimming in the pond at the same time that riparian owners use it for a variety of recreational and commercial uses (A copy of the letter is available here).
"This unfairness has upset many Islanders lacking access to private ponds and shorefronts," said Mr. Robinson.
Mr. Robinson also asked the secretary to investigate the issue of "inappropriate influence" exerted during EOEA's review of the Land Bank property management plan. The letter highlights the involvement of Mark Mattson, an EOEA employee and critic of the plan, who is married to Judith Lane, one of the sellers of the property and also a sharp critic of the plan.
A spokesperson for Mr. Bowles said he is reviewing the Land Bank letters and would have no comment at this time.
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.
Mr. Robinson wrote, "We feel that he (Mr. Matson) should have declined to comment in any way, even as a private citizen, because doing so creates the appearance of impropriety."
The Land Bank letter was in response to a conversation between Mr. Robinson and EOEA coordinator Christy Edwards, who indicated that the conditions were not intended to prevent public use of the property named Manaquayak Preserve. She invited the Land Bank to submit substitute proposals.
The letter includes two pages of text the Land Bank has proposed to insert into the 2006 management plan. Land Bank ecologist Julie Schaeffer said the revisions are intended to address Land Bank and state concerns about the health and well-being of the pond.
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.
In a three-page letter dated July 24, 2006, EOEA Secretary Stephen Pritchard approved the conservation agency's revised property management plan, but for the first time in 20 years, EOEA approval of a Land Bank plan came with a set of conditions.
The most significant condition placed all responsibility on the Land Bank for maintaining the pond's water quality within limits that would effectively close the pond to public swimming this summer.
Opposition to the Land Bank plan from abutters and former property owners continued right up to the EOEA decision.
The June 20, 2005, rejection letter from Secretary Herzfelder 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.
In an interview with The Times last June, Mr. Mattson dismissed the notion that he used his position to influence the secretary.
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 last week, Ms. Monnelly said she did not speak with Mr. Mattson even socially about Ice House Pond.
She added that it was the first time she had ever been asked to comment on a kettle pond or a Land Bank management plan. "I've been here six years and have never been asked to look at Land Bank property or any other property of that type," she said, noting that it was "sort of a special circumstance."
Trust the Island
Mr. Robinson wrote that abutters have often raised concerns about public use of properties purchased by the Land Bank, sometimes in a strident and vociferous manner, but that those concerns have consistently proved unfounded. As a result the Land Bank was surprised by the EOEA reaction to Ice House Pond.
"It didn't make sense," wrote Mr. Robinson, "that suddenly our stewardship standards were inadequate or faulty. We feel that in this case, politics and perhaps undue influence has insinuated itself into the review process."
He said the conditions would weaken local review. "Our town bylaws, bolstered by the powers of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, are second to none," he wrote. "The Island can be trusted to manage its issues."
Edgartown Land Bank commissioner Edward "Peter" Vincent, a lawyer in private practice, said that it would be wise for "some of these people to check with the state ethics commission before they do what they do."
He said the unprecedented rejection and then later the addition of conditions to the Ice House Pond management plan "would make one suspicious."
Chilmark commissioner Pamela Goff said her interest is in getting the property opened. "I just want people to be able to swim there this summer," she said.