Oak Bluffs public campground was approved and forgotten

Once a rallying cry, despite official approval in 2011, a bike-only campground in the Southern Woodlands has faded into obscurity.

An old pamphlet describes the charms of Webb's Camping Area. — Pamphlet courtesy of M.V. Land B

More than 17 years ago, a Connecticut development group purchased the 84-acre Webb’s campground overlooking Lagoon Pond, a haven for those looking for a no-frills Vineyard vacation, as the nucleus of a championship golf club, spurring a long-running and divisive land-use battle. Although Webb’s had been on the market for more than a decade when it was sold, opponents of the golf club rallied under the banner, “Save Webb’s.”

The Down Island Golf Club, rejected by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), was never built. Ultimately, the battle and lawsuits ended in 2004, when the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank agreed to purchase the majority of the property known as the Southern Woodlands from failed golf club developer Corey Kupersmith for $18 million.

In 2011, the Land Bank Southern Woodlands Management Plan was approved, outlining public use of the property. In recognition of the earlier battle, the plan included an accommodation to “designate an area in the southeast corner of the reservation for primitive campground use.”

But Oak Bluffs is no nearer to having a public campground today than it was in 2011. The reason, according to Land Bank executive director James Lengyel, is an apparent lack of interest.

“The Oak Bluffs Land Bank board and the Land Bank commissioner both approved the plan,” Mr. Lengyel told The Times. “The plan states that the Land Bank is open to the concept to creating a campground on the eastern end of the property, on the County Road side. It’s an unusual sort of campground because it’s bike-in or walk-in only.”

Mr. Lengyel said the Land Bank still supports the creation of a campground on Land Bank property. “All we need is to hear from Oak Bluffs citizens and from the Oak Bluffs Land Bank board that this that should be moved forward,” he said.

Mr. Lengyel said that the only opposition to the campground came from the owners of the Martha’s Vineyard Family Campground in Vineyard Haven. “They showed up at the hearings saying it wasn’t fair for them to compete with a nonprofit. We thought that since the Oak Bluffs campground was bike-in or walk-in only, it wouldn’t be the same crowd.”

As described in the Southern Woodlands Management Plan, there would be at least 40 campsites on the “low-impact” seasonal campground. An onsite resident manager would oversee operations 24/7. A central water source, toilets, and showers would be installed, along with a small septic system. Charcoal fires and grills would be permitted, pending approval of the fire chief. The plan concludes that “establishment, design, continuing use, and possible termination [are] subject to the approval of the Oak Bluffs town advisory board and Land Bank commission.”

“Since some of the [Land Bank] property was part of the old Webb’s campground, we were anticipating that people might stand up and bemoan limited camping options on the Island,” Matthew Dix, conservation lands foreman for the Land Bank, told The Times. “We thought a bike-in-only campground would be a great idea, But after a series of hearings, it didn’t go anywhere.”

Mr. Dix said it wasn’t decided who would be responsible for the management of the campground. “Discussions didn’t get that far,” he said. “We didn’t get any traction with it.”

“It wasn’t a main focus at the time,” Kerry Scott, former selectmen and golf course opponent, told The Times. “We all would have welcomed it; nobody furthered it. I assumed it wasn’t financially viable.”

Although no action has been taken since the land-use plan was approved in 2011, selectman Greg Coogan told The Times he thinks a campground is worth another look.
“I’d welcome a conversation about a new campground if [the Land Bank] wants to do it with their land,” he said. “We could certainly use more affordable accommodations during the summer.” Mr. Coogan said that the bike-in/walk-in policy added to the appeal, since it wouldn’t add to the Island’s growing traffic woes. “We’re getting choked with traffic. I spoke to Rep. [Tim] Madden recently, and he said it was the worst it’s ever been on Nantucket. The more we can encourage alternative transportation, the better.”

Save Webb’s

The news in 1998 that Preferred Links would buy Webb’s was a catalyst for action. But interest in conserving Webb’s as a campground was not new.

Land Bank efforts to protect the property began in 1988, with a letter from Webb’s owners, Nancy Douttiel and Arlene Bodge, offering to sell the property for a “firm” $4.5 million. That was a price the Land Bank deemed “not realistic” at the time, based on appraisals that put a value on the property of approximately $3 million, and resulted in an offer of $2.3 million.

In 1992, during a downturn in Island real estate values, the property was listed for $2.25 million. But a Land Bank internal appraisal, based on the cost of developing 46 house lots, set the value of the property at $875,000.

Adopting another strategy, the Land Bank offered to purchase a conservation easement that could be used to assist private parties who could not otherwise finance a purchase based solely on the limited campground income. That would leave title to the property with private owners, but still require that the land remain as a camping area, with walking trails open to the public.

After four years of negotiations, Randall and Sarah Spurr, summer residents and abutters to Webb’s, used an offer of $600,000 for a conservation easement to try and purchase Webb’s and maintain the campground as a retirement business.

But the Spurrs’ offer was too little, too late for a property already under agreement for sale to golf course developers.

The sale to golf developers initiated an uproar among people suddenly concerned over the loss of one of the Island’s only two camping areas. The Conservation Partnership, a consortium of Island conservation groups, committed to raise more than $1 million in support of efforts to take Webb’s by eminent domain, an option voters rejected.

In 2002, Mr. Kupersmith, who had taken over from Preferred Links, presented a golf club plan that included an offer to lease a portion of the former Webb’s Camping Area to the town at no cost, a reduction in managed turf, a $10 million “environmental impairment” insurance policy, walking trails, and a permanent conservation restriction. The MVC voted 9-7 to scuttle the plan.

In 2004, the MVC signed off on the Land Bank purchase of the failed golf club and a subdivision intended to bridge the gap between the Land Bank offer and the price Mr. Kupersmith wanted. The deal called for investigating “the feasibility of resurrection of the former campground in a fitting location.”