Aquinnah residents give Land Bank an earful over cliff trail

Gay Head Light. — File photo by Ezra Newick

In October, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank announced the purchase of one acre abutting its Aquinnah Headlands Preserve, a purchase it said could provide access to the beach below, called Pilot’s Landing, where steamboats once stopped.

Monday, public and private interests clashed sharply at a meeting of the Aquinnah Land Bank advisory board, to discuss a preliminary management plan for the property.

Aquinnah residents, including some who now use an existing path the Land Bank says is badly in need of repair, and representatives of the Wampanoag Tribe, which owns property the path crosses, harshly criticized the plan, provisions for public access down the trail, and a proposal to block unauthorized access until a plan is in place to address erosion.

Members of the advisory board defended the purchase and rebuffed charges that the Land Bank had acted inappropriately. They said it was the town’s best and perhaps only chance to keep the Steamboat Landing property out of the hands of a private buyer who might not keep it open space.

After two hours and more of discussion, the advisory board agreed to continue the hearing, most likely to an occasion after the New Year.

The Land Bank bought the land in October from the Vineyard Open Land Foundation (VOLF) for $225,000. VOLF had acquired it earlier in an unconnected land deal and decided the Land Bank was in the best position to manage it by adding the acre to its existing preserve.

Although a final management plan has yet to be completed, the preliminary plan calls for the property to be studied to determine whether it should be opened to the public part-time or year-round, and whether a trail should be created that would allow walkers to reach the beach and walk south around the Gay Head headlands to the Land Bank’s Moshup Beach.

The Land Bank’s proposal to prevent access to an existing informal walking trail with fences and gates pending a plan to address erosion and open it to the public was a flash point Monday. A provision would allow the town and the tribe each to have a key to access the property for safety and emergency purposes. The plan to put up a gate is currently before the town planning board.

Sacred access

“I just think locking things up, gating up that property, is really distressing, and I hope you guys change your mind,” said Liz Witham. “I feel you guys might have been forced into having gates . . . and I think you can accomplish the same goals just using some type of signage.”

“I know this is a preliminary plan, but how far can you go with a preliminary plan? Can you put up a Ferris wheel and a slide down to the ocean?” said Pilot’s Landing property owner Donald Ogilvie of West Tisbury. “This is purely to keep the neighbors out. It’s just bad politics and bad community relations.”

The Wampanoag Tribe, which owns property over which the path crosses, also took issue with the plan.

“While the tribe encourages and supports conservation of our Island’s remarkable places, the Aquinnah Headlands project has been a challenge to embrace,” Bettina M. Washington, the tribe’s historic preservation officer, wrote in a letter.

“For what we see as a small parcel of land, there is an intense amount of work to make this area more than what it needs to be, in our opinion,” she said.

At Monday’s meeting, the tribe administrator, Tobias Vanderhoop, said the preliminary plan calls for public access to land that is both federally protected and considered sacred by the tribe.

“There is an assumed right to cross tribal lands, and as soon as you start assuming you have the right to someone else’s land, you have gone askew,” Mr. Vanderhoop said.

Mr. Ogilvie questioned why the Land Bank bought the property when some of the larger questions regarding easements and access to tribal lands have yet to be answered.

“You’re telling me you spent $225,000 to buy the land and you don’t know the answer to these questions. That’s appalling – you are the board,” Mr. Ogilvie said.

In a letter sent to the advisory board, Hugh Taylor, owner of the nearby Outermost Inn off Lighthouse Road, insinuated wrongdoing on the part of the Land Bank.

“The idea that boards and entities have been secretly advancing agendas and strategies is unsettling at best. The playing field is foggy, and those players in the loop have often determined the destiny of their purchased properties, without any input from the residents of the community,” Mr. Taylor wrote.

Monday, some of those in attendance expressed opposition to allowing public access through Steamboat Landing at all. “To me, opening it to the public flies in the face of conservation. I can’t even say them in the same sentence,” said Alexandra Taylor. “Growing up here, you knew that you never walked on the backside of the cliffs. We just knew that was the wrong thing to do.”

Kate Taylor asked why the advisory board didn’t say no to the Land Bank. “Like it or not, Aquinnah is gold. It is all sacred. It is all very special property. And unless you are making money on this sale why not tell the Land Bank to go take a jump?” she added.

For the future

“If we didn’t buy it, someone privately would have bought it; and it would have gone away from the public,” advisory board member Elise LeBovit said Monday. “Our job is to see the big picture of 50 years or 100 years and how to keep these lands open. That is our job, to preserve as much as we can.”

Ms. LeBovit also noted that the town considered buying the property but decided against it. She noted the town did not have the same financial resources as the Lank Bank to acquire property like Steamboat Landing.

“The town couldn’t buy it, and the town didn’t buy it. Now we are in this situation of opening it up to the public or not opening it up to the public. That is where we are now — seeing what your ideal is and making a plan,” she said.

Richard Skidmore took exception to accusations that the Land Bank threatened the town to acquire the property. “The Land Bank wants to be a good neighbor and wants to be responsive to the concerns of the public,” he said. “I know people are saying ‘threatened,’ but I don’t see it as ‘threatened.’ I see it as the Land Bank having conditions they see as important to the mandate of having to move forward.”

Mr. Skidmore also defended the decision to purchase of the property. “I could have chosen to say, I don’t like those conditions so much that I am going to foreclose the possibility of the town possibly having access in the future – but I chose to go forward so there could be access,” he said.

Board member Michael Stutz read a prepared statement which defended the board’s decision, noting it provides key access to the beach on the north side and creates a loop trail beneath the cliffs back to Moshup Trail.

“Both the longstanding use and fragility of the area present management challenges that made some of my Land Bank colleagues reluctant to purchase Steamboat Landing, but they ultimately voted to buy it, in the conviction that we could successfully manage it,” he said.

Mr. Stutz conceded that fencing the property is contrary to the Lank Bank’s mission, but the organization is prohibited by its enabling legislation from allowing private use of its property while the public was excluded.

He went on to suggest a compromise, that the fencing would be unnecessary if the board voted to open the property to “modest” year-round access.

His plan would use signs and plantings to reduce pedestrian traffic and keep walkers away from neighbor’s properties, while also emphasizing that the north head is best suited for naturalists and hikers rather than beachgoers.

Mr. Stutz’s proposal did not go to a vote on Monday.