Flat Point Farm land to be sold – conservation still an option

Flat Point Farm pasture land is surrounded on three sides by Tisbury Great Pond. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Arnold “Arnie” Fischer and his family have a $2.95 million purchase and sale agreement with a private buyer to sell 12.9 prime Tisbury Great Pond waterfront acres from their roughly 120-acre Flat Point Farm, but Mr. Fischer says he hopes the town of West Tisbury, which has a right of first refusal on the purchase, or a conservation group will step in and buy the land.

Flat Point Farm in West Tisbury is now mostly fenced pasture land and hay fields with pristine views of Tisbury Great Pond. It is used for pasture and hay production for the farm’s herds of sheep, cows, and goats. The land is bordered on three sides by upper reaches of the pond, Pear Tree Cove, Town Cove, and Short Cove. The 12.9-acre parcel is at the tip of 40 acres that Mr. Fischer calls Flat Point field. Mr. Fischer subdivided the field for up to two houses in a project approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission five years ago.

Mr. Fischer says he has wanted to put the land in conservation for some time, but the limited life of the option is forcing a decision.

“We have been trying to work with any and all conservation groups for 20 years,” he said. None of the groups he has walked the land with felt that the property quite fit their goals at the time, he said. He stated, “The family would definitely consider more land to be protected,” he said, if the town or a conservation group were willing to buy it.

He said this week that discussions with the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission several years ago about protecting the property were unfruitful. He said the Land Bank had made a substantial offer for Flat Point Farm land, but “it was not the right deal at the time,” without elaborating any further. The Land Bank was established by the state legislature to buy and maintain conservation property using funds from a two percent tax on some real estate transactions.

Mr. Fischer said the impending private sale is necessary to pay estate taxes and debts incurred over the course of several years, when his mother’s health was failing before she died in June of 2012. “We have had this piece of land for sale for some time,” he said.

Protected land

The land for sale has been classified as agricultural land subject to substantially lower real estate taxes than residential property, under Chapter 61A of the Massachusetts general laws. It is one of several laws enacted to encourage owners to keep land undeveloped and in agriculture.

There are 12 properties classified as 61A in West Tisbury, according to Kristina West, West Tisbury tax assessor. She said that under Chapter 61 the state determines the land’s value for tax purposes, which now ranges between $40 to $800 an acre, depending on how the land is used, compared to much of West Tisbury residential property that is assessed at about $110,000 an acre.

Land that is granted 61A status is subject to restrictions and requirements, one of which requires the seller to notify the town of a pending sale. The town then has a 120-day right of first refusal to either buy the property or to assign its option to buy to a nonprofit conservation group. A conservation group would then have 90 days to close the deal after declaring its intention to make the deal.

Mr. Fischer gave his notice of sale to the town on November 29, 2012. The 120-day period will end about March 29.

No action yet

West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel said the selectmen have not taken any action other than instructing their town administrator to notify the appropriate conservation groups about the pending sale. He said that there are no Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds available to make the purchase. West Tisbury town administrator Jennifer Rand said that local conservation groups have been notified of the sale, but no offers have surfaced to date.

Island conservation groups would like to see the land conserved but do not have plans in place to make it happen.

Land Bank executive director James Lengyel said in a conversation with the Times that “the Land Bank would love to see the land preserved and hopes there might be an organization, or a consortium, that could conserve the land, but the Land Bank revenues do not permit it to do it.” He said that even with the recent uptick in Land Bank income from greater than usual Island real estate sales in December, they do not have the money to purchase the land.

Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) executive director Brendan O’Neill said that while VCS is not in a position to purchase the land, they might be willing to help facilitate conserving the Fischer property. They have received emails from people urging the protection of the farm. “Everyone wants to see that prominent, iconic, Vineyard parcel conserved,” he said.

VCS might be able to help identify people who would have the resources to help conserve the land, Mr. O’Neill said. He indicated that the alarm that is being sounded over the sale could lead to a conservation restriction that would protect the land from development in perpetuity.

“I would love to see an outcome where Flat Point Farm is conserved,” he said. “It seems that we are just at the beginning of this process, but there is this urgency. We will help coordinate with other conservation groups to see if they have any ideas. We will be happy to see if we can pull a rabbit out of the hat.” VCS has not met since before the holidays, and he said their board will be discussing Flat Point Farm when they meet on January 17.

Christopher Kennedy, superintendent of the Martha’s Vineyard division of The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), a state-wide conservation group with land on the Vineyard, said that TTOR is aware of the proposed sale but that the Flat Point land is not in the organization’s immediate plans.

A farmland legacy

Arnie Fischer and his three sisters, who grew up on the land, inherited Flat Point Farm from their father, who started it in 1939 as a dairy farm. Each of the four has a five-acre house lot from a 1976 subdivision, and the remaining land, the farm, about a hundred acres, is now held in a trust, which has been in probate since Mr. Fischer’s mother died.

Mr. Fischer runs the farm with his sister Eleanor Fischer Neubert. He said they are growing about 30 acres of hay, which is just about enough for the animals they raise. In addition to the beef cattle, lambs, and goats, the farm sells chickens and eggs, and Mr. Fischer’s daughter Emily makes goat’s milk soap, which he said is selling pretty well. The farm is selling beef to the West Tisbury School, Mr. Fischer said.

Having a couple of houses built on the land “is not the end of the world,” Mr. Fischer said. “Selling to the private party may be a better option than having a Land Bank trail running through it, but it is not in our hands at this point. We will just have to see how it goes. It is a window of opportunity for the town.”