Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank buys Flat Point Farm pond front acres

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

In a last-minute deal that will protect a piece of prime agricultural land overlooking Tisbury Great Pond from residential development, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank will purchase a 13-acre lot, part of the 120-acre Flat Point Farm in West Tisbury, and an agricultural preservation restriction to protect an adjacent 25-acre farm field.

The purchase price for the land and agricultural restriction is $3,450,000, James Lengyel, Land Bank executive director, told The Times on Thursday last week.

The purchase was made possible by neighboring property owner Steven Rattner, a New York city-based financier and former adviser to President Obama. “Steven Rattner very generously offered to finance the purchase price for the Land Bank,” Mr. Lengyel said.

In November, Flat Point farm owners Arnold “Arnie” Fischer and his family announced they had signed a $2.95 million purchase and sale agreement with a private buyer to sell a 13-acre lot located on the southern tip of the farm.

Because the land is classified as agricultural land, subject to substantially lower real estate taxes under Chapter 61A of the Massachusetts general laws, the Fischer family was required to notify the town of a pending sale.

The law provides the town with a 120-day right of first refusal to either buy the property or assign its option to buy to a nonprofit conservation group. Mr. Fischer gave his notice of sale to the town on November 29, 2012. The 120-day period was to end Thursday, March 28.

On Wednesday, March 27, the town assigned its right to the Land Bank.

Mr. Lengyel said the deal reached last week was contingent on the purchase of a trail easement and agricultural restriction on the abutting field. The Land Bank commissioners were unwilling to pay $2.9 million and own only 13 acres on Short Cove, he said.

“There was not enough public benefit in that,” Mr. Lengyel said. “It was a side deal, but it was an indispensable part of the deal from our perspective.”

“What was always the most important thing to the Land Bank was what we would call the southerly pasture,” Mr. Lengyel said. “It is the land that is right on the Tisbury Great Pond and on the Short Cove, plus a trail that would connect it back to Tiah’s Cove Road.”

Without the assistance of Mr. Rattner, the deal would not have been possible.

Neighbor steps in

“Steven Rattner very generously offered to finance the purchase price for the Land Bank,” Mr. Lengyel said.

Mr. Rattner, a longtime West Tisbury seasonal resident, owns Monomoy Farm, an approximately 20-acre horse farm and riding stable he and his wife built on the former Crow Hollow Farm property on New Lane. The Land Bank holds an agricultural preservation restriction on the property.

Without financing, the Land Bank was unwilling to go forward. Mr. Lengyel said the Land Bank does not have enough money on hand for an outright purchase and was unwilling to finance the purchase with a revenue bond, a complex procedure. That left private financing.

There is a nine-year payout at terms and rates comparable to those now paid by municipalities of between one and two percent, Mr. Lengyel said.

“It is a very good deal,” he added.

Mr. Lengyel said the Land Bank had talked with the Fischer family about a purchase many times since September 1987, but the two sides could not reach agreement on price.

In November, the town notifed the Land Bank about the impending sale. Without sufficient cash on hand and unwilling to issue a revenue bond, the Land Bank commissioners voted not to pursue the deal.

“I received an email from Mr. Rattner,” Mr. Lengyel said, “who said that I understand that it would be useful to you if the Land Bank had financing, and I’m willing to talk about that.”

Reached at his New York office, Mr. Rattner declined to comment.

The Land Bank is funded by a two-percent fee on real estate transactions.

Land Bank purchases and management plans are approved jointly by town Land Bank advisory board, made up of appointed members in each town, and the elected members of the Land Bank commission.

A farmland legacy

Flat Point Farm in West Tisbury is now mostly fenced pasture land and hay fields, with lovely views over Tisbury Great Pond. The land is bordered on three sides by upper reaches of the pond, Pear Tree Cove, Town Cove, and Short Cove.

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 itself, about a hundred acres, is now held in a trust.

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

Five years ago, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission approved a subdivision plan of the field that allowed for the construction of two houses.

In January, Mr. Fischer told The Times the impending private sale was 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.

Having a couple of houses built on the land “is not the end of the world,” Mr. Fischer said in January. “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.”