Southern Woodlands lots up for foreclosure auction

An agreement is in place to swap landlocked parcel "S" with parcel "T." Parcels "T" and "O" (already owned by Oak Bluffs) would give the town a large parcel with frontage on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road that could be developed. — Photo courtesy of Google Maps

A public foreclosure auction is scheduled for April 19 to sell 20 house lots in the Southern Woodlands, an area that was part of divisive and costly land use battle that pitted golf course developers against the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), and bitterly divided local town officials.

The auction could have repercussions that affect a complicated land swap agreement between the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank and the town of Oak Bluffs. That agreement, signed in 2004, would create a valuable parcel of land that could be developed for use in several ways. That land swap deal was never completed, however, in part because the town has not cleared the titles to the land in the seven years since the agreement was signed.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Oak Bluffs selectmen, town officials and housing advocates agreed to discuss their options, with an eye to formulating a strategy before the auction, now just three weeks away. Those options might include affordable housing, conservation, amendment of the land swap agreement, or commercial development.

Firm Terms

Corey Kupersmith intended to develop the land into a luxury residential neighborhood with an equestrian theme, after several proposals to build a golf course community failed to win approval from the MVC. He got all the necessary regulatory approvals and began building the development, but quickly ran into financial problems.

Bidders who want to buy one or more of the lots will have to deposit $50,000 at the time of the bid and 10 percent of the purchase price within three days of the auction. Buyers will have 45 days from the auction to complete the purchase.

The new owners will have to pay back taxes and any other municipal liens on the property. They will also have to comply with special permits and subdivision plans approved by the Oak Bluffs planning board in 2004 and 2005.

Golf wars

For years, Oak Bluffs was one of dozens of landowners of private landlocked parcels, many with unclear titles. The key to unlocking the ownership maze was the 88-acre Webb’s Camping Area, part of approximately 400 acres of land now referred to as the Southern Woodlands.

The camping area had been for sale for years. An offer by the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank was refused, and in 1998 a golf course development company announced that it had an option to purchase the property. The company went to work clearing titles and acquiring more parcels.

When their efforts stalled, Mr. Kupersmith, a wealthy golf enthusiast and pharmacy entrepreneur from Greenwich, Conn., took over. Mr. Kupersmith approached the town and MVC officials with a plan to develop an 18-hole golf course and offer a benefit package he thought would be eagerly embraced. At one point the development included public walking trails, payments in lieu of taxes, an offer to lease a portion of the former Webb’s Camping Area to the town at no cost, and a permanent conservation restriction.

The proposal spawned a bitter battle that divided the town and ended with the MVC’s rejection of three successive applications.

In March 2005, Mr. Kupersmith sold 190 acres of the southern woodlands to the Land Bank for $18.6 million. The arrangement paved the way for Mr. Kupersmith to build a 26-house subdivision on 90 acres of land that he retained.

The luxury housing development was intended to bridge the financial gap between what the Land Bank was willing to pay – that is, approximately $100,000 per acre – and Mr. Kupersmith’s asking price of $26 million.

The agreement included a provision under which the Land Bank would swap a 24-acre rectangular lot without access, owned by the town, for “more convenient acreage located elsewhere in the Southern Woodlands, contingent on town meeting approval.”

The swap was intended to provide the town with a more accessible piece of property adjacent to the Land Bank piece.

Swap flops

On October 26, 2004, Roger Wey, then chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen, and Edith Potter, then chairman of the Land Bank Commission, signed an intermunicipal agreement to execute the land swap.

That led to the Land Bank’s purchase of Mr. Kupersmith’s property, completed in 2005. The new property completely surrounded a 24-acre parcel owned by Oak Bluffs. The Oak Bluffs property was known as the “donut hole,” because it was landlocked, completely surrounded by other property, with no right of access from any roadway.

Without legal access from a roadway, development was impossible.

The land swap agreement called for the Land Bank to assume ownership of the town’s “donut hole” property (designated as Parcel “S” in the illustration) to preserve as conservation land.

The town would assume ownership of the Land Bank’s parcel (Parcel T). That parcel abutted land already owned by the town (Parcel O) next to the Martha’s Vineyard Arena, with frontage on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.

If the agreement is completed, Oak Bluffs will own Parcels T and O, which together would create a very valuable parcel of land with direct access that could be developed into most any use the town desired.

The Land Bank will own more than 100 contiguous acres of undeveloped conservation land.

On the table

Oak Bluffs selectmen raised the issues at their Tuesday meeting, noting that the auction could affect the town in a variety of ways.

“It’s a lot of land,” selectmen Walter Vail said. “I’m wondering if we could set up a committee to see if the town has an interest in it. I think it’s something we ought to be aware of.”

Chairman Kathy Burton said time is short. “I don’t know how we could possibly do anything by April 19,” she said.

Selectmen were vague about the reason the land swap agreement with the Land Bank has never been completed. The agreement unequivocally assigns the town responsibility for clearing the titles to the two parcels. Conflicting claims on the land date back to deeds recorded in 1795, when the land was part of Edgartown.

Oak Bluffs, faced with a financial crisis in recent years, has cut money once budgeted for the time-consuming and expensive legal process of clearing disputed titles.

“That swap was held up,” Mr. Vail said. “My understanding was it was held up because of a title issue. In all that time that has passed, can’t we somehow get that cleared up and move forward?”

Ewell Hopkins, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Fund (formerly the Island Affordable Housing Fund) and also a member of the Oak Bluffs affordable housing committee, said in a phone interview on Wednesday that legal costs have not been the only issue blocking progress. He said that for the past two years he has urged town officials to create a master plan for the Southern Woodlands that includes an affordable housing component.

Mr. Hopkins said that several town officials have had different agendas for the land, and those differing agendas blocked progress over the past seven years. “The reason we are talking about a 2004 agreement is because different people have had different priorities for the region, but no one has been willing to look at it in total,” he said. “We can’t turn a blind eye on the focused priorities of a few.

“None of these things can be resolved if we’re not working together. We can’t go off secretly and negotiate our own deals and not tell each other. We can’t do it in secret anymore.”