TNC says conservation restrictions prohibit walking trail link

Public and privately owned parcels, all with some degree of public access and use, bracket the former Woods property, now owned by The Nature Conservancy. TNC has rebuffed an effort to link with a trail the publicly owned conservation properties east and west of the Woods property. — Photo courtesy of Bill Veno

There will be no public walking trail in the foreseeable future across the 485-acre Frances Newhall Woods Nature and Wildlife Preserve. Such a trail would have connected the Polly Hill Arboretum or Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society property in West Tisbury to the east, and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank’s Waskosim’s Rock Reservation in Chilmark to the west.

Tom Chase of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), in a May 9 letter to Martha’s Vineyard Commission senior planner William Veno, cited the donor family’s wishes and existing conservation restrictions (CR) on the property as the basis for rejecting Mr. Veno’s request that TNC allow a public access trail “as an essential segment of a broader trail network.”

Mr. Chase did say that TNC, which took ownership in February of the property it received as a gift, would allow “limited guided access” across the property that sits within nearly 2,000 acres of interconnected forestland in West Tisbury and Chilmark and would consider including the preserve in the route of the annual Land Bank cross-Island hike.

The story of the Woods property — and the balance between tax advantages to the property owner weighed against the benefits to the community granting the CR — highlights the tradeoffs town officials often face when they agree to accept a CR. The tale also shows the extent to which the entity responsible for management of the CR must oversee and enforce the restrictions embodied in the CR agreement, regardless of the disappointment those restrictions may cause to the granting town and subject to state action for any failure by the CR enforcer to see that the CR restrictions are observed.

CRs cover a huge swath of the Vineyard

Almost 40 percent of Martha’s Vineyard, is protected by conservation restrictions that limit the types and extent of activities that may occur over an Island-wide patchwork of public and private properties that vary in size from a few acres to the 2,000-acre Manuel F. Correllus State Forest at the heart of the Island.

Conservation organizations own, control, or manage most of the 20,720 acres the MVC identified as protected open space in its The Island Plan, a multi-year planning effort by the powerful regulatory agency, whose aim was to create a blueprint for development and change for the next 50 years.

In the case of some CRs, the organization that owns the property can decide what types of activities and access it will allow. For example, the Land Bank, a public agency, allows access in one form or another to almost all of its more than 3,094 acres, as does The Trustees of Reservations, a private conservation organization that owns or manages much of the open beach on Chappaquiddick.

In other cases, the organization may only hold a CR over property that remains privately owned. The owner’s ability to develop or use the property is limited. In exchange, the owner receives a tax break.

Selectmen must approve any CR, and their decision is subject to review by the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and Energy. In some cases, selectmen will press for concessions from the landowner when negotiating a CR, for example a public walking path or a guarantee that an existing view will remain.

In perpetuity

A Californian by birth, a farmer and rancher by trade, Edwin Woods had deep roots in the land and West Tisbury, where he visited all his life and owned a house. The Woods family was well known for years of commitment to conservation, having previously donated land to the town of West Tisbury and to the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, where the Ag Hall barns now stand and the annual agricultural fair is held.

Bob and Jeanne Woods died in 2011. In April of this year, The Nature Conservancy announced that their children, Edwin “Robin” Woods Jr., Francine N. Woods, and Prudence Jeanne Noon, had formalized the couple’s wish that ownership of the preserve property be granted to The Nature Conservancy.

“Beginning in the 1980s, our parents, with the advice of Island visionaries, concurred that because of its primarily undisturbed and significant conservation value, the property would become a nature and wildlife preserve in perpetuity,” Francine Woods said in a press release in April. “The acceptance of this gift by The Nature Conservancy is a transition in stewardship of a unique landscape that fosters the protection of an area-wide ecosystem.”

TNC also announced that it while it would hold title to the land, the oversight of the permanent conservation restriction on the property that it had held since November 22, 1991, would be transferred to the Vineyard Conservation Society, a longtime Island conservation advocacy group. TNC explained that legally, one organization cannot both own a property and hold a CR on that property.

TNC said the two conservation groups would collaborate on stewardship of the land going forward. Had the transfer not taken place, it might have extinguished the existing conservation restrictions.

“This is a significant conservation achievement, more than two decades in the making,” Brendan O’Neill, VCS executive director, said in the same press release. “VCS is happy to be partnering with the Conservancy to keep the protections of the original conservation instrument alive.”

A Christmas present

On November 25, 1991, Edwin Woods and Brendan O’Neill met with the West Tisbury selectmen to describe a package of conservation restrictions designed to protect more than 500 acres of undeveloped land. The mood in the room was “jubilant,” according to a story published Nov. 27, 1991, in The MV Times.

A 511-acre parcel, named in honor of Mr. Woods’ mother but still owned by Mr. Woods was placed under a conservation restriction with the development rights held by TNC.

A 23-acre parcel on Panhandle Road was sold to the Agricultural Society for $175,000, well below market value, and protected from development by an agricultural preservation restriction (APR) the town and VCS would hold jointly [See related story].

TNC biologist Tim Simmons, who now works for the state Natural Heritage Program, told selectmen the land was important habitat and would provide an opportunity to study a macro-ecosystem, according to meeting minutes. TNC director of land preservation Liz Bell said access would be for scientific research only.

Selectmen discussed the Woods property and several related issues again on December 9 and December 20. While there was some discussion about public access, for the most part, town officials and residents did not want it to be a sticking point.

According to the minutes of December 9, 1991, Rez Williams, chairman of the West Tisbury conservation commission , said “he did not think the town should ask the Woods family for more than what they had offered. He felt that there should be public access on special ways, but he was against public access when a fragile habitat is involved.”

William Thomas, chairman of the planning board at the time, said the restrictions were in line with the town’s master plan, to keep the town rural. “The effect on the tax roll is a benefit, as public services will not be needed,” he said.

Donald Sibley, a member of the planning board, said he understood why TNC wanted to have unbroken habitat not open to the public, but, “He wondered about public access around the perimeter of the property.”

On December 20, the West Tisbury selectmen, John Early, Cynthia Mitchell, and John Alley, signed the conservation restrictions. Mr. Alley said the restrictions were a “wonderful Christmas present for everyone concerned.”

Assurances made

Because almost 13 acres of the Woods property is located in Chilmark, on December 11, 1991, Mr. O’Neill, representing the Woods family and TNC, met with Chilmark selectmen to seek approval of the CRs presented earlier to West Tisbury.

Selectman Jonathan Mayhew was concerned that the CRs restricted future trails and asked “would we get trails?” according to the minutes.

“Mr. O’Neill replied,” according to the minutes of that meeting, “that he had discussed the access issue with the counsel who wrote the restriction, and it was not his intention for the instrument to prohibit horseback riding or trail construction in the future, provided that it had no detrimental effect on the natural values.

“The intent was to create a nature and wildlife preserve, but they would not slam the door on future plans for public access. In the meantime, there was no change in the Woods status quo.

“He announced that there was a new player on the block — The Nature Conservancy — and that they want to be a member of the local conservation community and were ‘all ears’ about the goals, which obviously in this case, would consist of a link between properties in West Tisbury and Chilmark.”

Mr. Mayhew referred to the leverage the selectmen held. According to the minutes, Mr. O’Neill told selectmen that “he had tried unsuccessfully to have trails included now, but there is future potential for access and recreation.

“Mr. Mayhew asked what leverage could be used in the future,” the minutes state. “Mr. O’Neill replied, ‘Some leverage is my assurances tonight.'”

Selectmen Mayhew and Herbert Hancock signed the restrictions. Selectman Pamela Goff, a member of the Land Bank, did not participate.

No disturbance allowed

Edwin and Jeanne Woods of Santa Maria, California, signed the deed on Nov. 22, 1991, granting conservation restrictions on a piece of property they said “forms the centerpiece in an area-wide ecosystem of 1,500 acres more or less of protected property.”

Under paragraph 3, prohibited uses, the Woodses said it was their intention to set aside a significant portion of the property as a nature and wildlife preserve “to foster the growth of ecosystems and habitat, with a minimum of human intrusion or intervention, other than in connection with a natural resource conservation and management plan approved by TNC,” which may be revised, provided that such revisions were consistent with the restrictions outlined.

The listed restrictions are many. Broadly, they include “any act or use that would impair the tranquility, ecological integrity, generally undisturbed character, and conservation values” of the preserve.

Specifically, they include: agriculture, forestry and commercial recreational uses; cutting, removing, or otherwise destroying trees; the creation of new roads or trails, or the improvement of existing roads or trails, except as provided for natural resource management; hunting; fishing; and outdoor recreational activities, including but not limited to horseback riding, that may have an adverse impact on the nature and wildlife preserve or the other conservation values of the property.

The Woodses reserved the right to create new trails and clear vegetation for habitat protection and enhancement, fire protection, tick control. and the preservation of vistas.

Link sought

In his letter dated April 17, 2013, to Mr. Chase, Mr. Veno, who also works for the Land Bank as a trail planner, congratulated TNC on its acquisition of the Woods property, pointed out its proximity to other conservation properties and cited the high value the Island Plan placed on improving trail systems.

“Chilmark and West Tisbury each contain extensive trail networks, but they do not connect to each other,” Mr. Veno said. “The West Byways committee has given high priority to making such a link to Chilmark, but the options are few. A trail spanning the TNC preserve linking Waskosim’s Rock Reservation with Polly Hill or the Agricultural Society land is the most viable option for connecting the two towns.”

Highlighting the existence of a perimeter footpath Mr. Woods had allowed the Land Bank to use for a cross Island hike in 2009, Mr. Veno said, “The route of a public trail could be anywhere that best fits the conservation values of the preserve while spanning the distance between other public access points.”

In his reply to Mr. Veno, Mr. Chase, TNC director of conservation strategies, said he appreciated “the advocacy and work that you and others have done to increase trail access across the Vineyard.”

“However,” Mr. Chase went on, “unlimited, unguided use of trails is discouraged by the conservation restriction and inconsistent with the understanding between the donors and the Conservancy regarding management priorities.”

Mr. Chase said once a property is open to the public, it needs and deserves a high level of dedicated stewardship. He highlighted the problems of unauthorized use and conflicts between user groups, for example, horseback riding and hunting, and told Mr. Veno, “Our awareness of the responsibilities and cost of managing land for public access deepen our appreciation for our conservation partners who can appropriately champion this cause.”

Family wishes

Edward Woods Jr. lives on his parents’ ranch in California. In a recent conversation with The Times, while on a visit to the family home off North Road in West Tisbury, Mr. Woods was asked by a reporter about the continued restrictions on the property that prevent a trail.

Mr. Woods said it was family’s wish that there be no walking trail across the property “at this point in time, yes, as it was with Dad.”

Asked if the family might withdraw its objections in the future, Mr. Woods said he and his siblings would need to agree to allow it, and that was unlikely to occur.

Asked why the family objects to the notion of a walking trail that would link other conservation properties, Mr. Woods said it is wildlife preserve by its nature, and he described the detriments when “you add people to nature.”

“The amount of ground that is disrupted was not in my grandmother’s thought process, was not in my our parents thought process, and we prefer the thing being left in the natural state, as opposed to being another trail with a bit of litter here and there and the dogs here and there and the bicycle tracks here and there, and the wanderings off the trail, the carvings on the trees, the knocked-over stone walls here and there, if a trail went nearby them. We just prefer it in its natural state.”