Land Bank would create Oak Bluffs public campground

The two-acre “primitive” campground will be accessible only on foot or by bicycle. — Map Courtesy of Land Bank

More than 17 years ago, the purchase of Webb’s campground by would-be golf course developers spurred a long-running and divisive land-use battle. It ended 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. Now, a public campground is in the offing.

On Wednesday, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank issued a request for proposals (RFP) for the construction and management of a two-acre “primitive campground” to be located on the eastern edge of the 234-acre Southern Woodlands Reservation, an area designated for camping in the 2011 Southern Woodlands Management Plan.

As described in the management plan, the “primitive” campground is to be accessible only on foot or by bicycle. It will be located near the County Road boundary of the property, to provide easy access to one of the Island’s most heavily trafficked bicycle trails.

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.”

There will be approximately 40 campsites, according to the RFP, which mirrors the management plan outline. 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 or composting toilets. Charcoal fires and grills would be permitted, pending approval of the fire chief.

Although the campground was approved in 2011, the idea fell by the wayside soon after. “We thought a bike-in-only campground would be a great idea. But after a series of hearings, it didn’t go anywhere,” Matthew Dix, conservation lands foreman for the Land Bank, told The Times in a previous interview.
“It wasn’t a main focus at the time,” Kerry Scott, former selectman, told The Times. “We all would have welcomed it; nobody furthered it. I assumed it wasn’t financially viable.”

In a conversation Wednesday morning, Land Bank executive director James Lengyel said a story published on August 12 in The Times, “Oak Bluffs public campground was approved and forgotten,” which described the history of the proposal and lack of action, prompted Oak Bluffs Land Bank board members to light a fire under the campground idea. “We’re casting as wide a net as possible,” Mr. Lengyel said. “This hasn’t been done before on the Vineyard, so we’ll be interested to see what kind of responses we get.”

“I’m all in favor of this,” Oak Bluffs selectman Greg Coogan said. “We need more affordable lodging in the summer.”

The deadline for bids is noon on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016. Bids will be opened on Monday, Feb. 8, 2016.

There are only five car-free “primitive campsites” statewide, under the purview of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. They do not offer showers or a shared water source.

Martha’s Vineyard Family Campground on Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road, a private business, is the only campground on the Island. The well-regarded facility offers a range of amenities, including small cottages.

Campground battleground

The Land Bank proposal is rooted in the battle to save Webb’s campground, an 84-acre parcel overlooking Lagoon Pond that was a haven for those looking for a no-frills Vineyard vacation.

Land Bank efforts to protect it go all the way back to 1988, when campground owners Nancy Douttiel and Arlene Bodge offered 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.

A Connecticut development group purchased Webb’s campground as the nucleus of a championship golf club, spurring a heated 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 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, golf club developer Corey Kupersmith 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.

Ultimately, the battle and lawsuits ended in 2004, when the Land Bank finally agreed to purchase the majority of the property known as the Southern Woodlands from Mr. Kupersmith for $18 million. The deal called for investigating “the feasibility of resurrection of the former campground in a fitting location.”