Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival looks for exit on property deal

At the last minute, a deal to transfer the P&S fell through. MVFF leaders now own the West Tisbury property which they said they will sell.

This photo shows a portion of the property, which includes the back field, once eyed by the Martha's Vineyard Film Festival for its new home. – Sam Moore

Updated 4 pm, Wednesday

In the face of unrelenting political and community opposition in West Tisbury, and a social media howl that was only likely to increase through the permitting phase, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival (MVFF) board of directors has decided to give up its plans to construct a campus on the 12.5-acre Cynthia Walsh property at 694 Old County Road, in the center of West Tisbury’s historic district, to construct a campus.

“Our aim is to build community, not divide it,” MVFF executive director Thomas Bena said in a statement issued Wednesday. “It became abundantly clear that our project was not desired in that neighborhood, so now it is time for us to find land that is better for the Island and for the MVFF.”

The MVFF had been meeting with a newly created limited-liability corporation called the Friends and Neighbors of the Walsh Family to craft a deal designed help the nonprofit avoid a $70,000 loss on its purchase and sales agreement. On Monday, that deal fell through.

In a statement issued Wednesday morning, the MVFF said, “At the eleventh hour, on advice of her counsel, the trustee of Walsh Family Trust did not allow the transfer. Subsequently, the MVFF is legally obligated to finalize its purchase of the property.”

The MVFF, a nonprofit group that hosts a variety of art events and film screenings around the Island, had set out to raise $2 million to purchase the farmland and renovate the 1830s house on the property. The closing date for the $1.4 million land purchase was Wednesday, June 22.

A closing took place at 3 pm Wednesday afternoon. In a telephone call following the closing, Brian Ditchfield, MVFF managing director, said, “We’re already entertaining offers on the property.”

The LLC plan was then to sell off the front five-acre parcel to a waiting Island family, who asked not to be identified, and work on a separate deal, possibly with conservation groups or another Island family, on the back 7.5-acre lot, which includes farmland. MVFF plans to continue to work with the neighbors and try to enact that plan.

“It’s reassuring to know that in the current climate of rumors and anonymous online comments, we can still meet face to face to overcome conflict and embrace the true spirit of our Island community,” Mr. Ditchfield said in the statement. “Even though the option to transfer the purchase and sale has been taken off the table, we are going to continue to work with the abutters to preserve the land, and we hope the community will help the MVFF find a better location.”

Rez Williams of West Tisbury, a member of the LLC formed to work out a deal, told The Times Wednesday afternoon that at this point the group is not involved. “We hope that they carry through on their promises but we’re waiting to see,” Mr. Williams said. “At this point, we’re in the passenger seat with our seatbelts on.”

Speaking to The Times on Wednesday afternoon, West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel said the board was pleased about the outcome. “From our point of view, it’s good news,” he said. “We tried to gently inform them that there were real problems with their plans. We recognize the festival needs to take this step, but that location is not it. I knew Cynthia Walsh very well and I have no doubt she would not have approved.”

Under fire

The MVFF has been under fire ever since it announced last month in an email appeal to supporters that it was poised to purchase the property and “build a vibrant year-round gathering place for our community, a place where education, art, and inspiration intersect.”

MVFF founder and executive director Thomas Bena of Chilmark said the purchase would allow the 16-year-old nonprofit to create a center where it could hold all of its events year-round. These include a summer film series, March film festival, children’s circus, a filmmaking camp, and school programs.

Mr. Bena said the group would be looking for community input before drawing up any definitive plans. “We don’t want to walk in with a plan and then hold community meetings,” he said. “We want to hold community meetings and then make a plan.”

Mr. Bena received plenty of community input, but not of the sort he may have wanted. The news generated considerable consternation among nearby residents concerned about changes to the pastoral atmosphere of the neighborhood. Although the permitting process had yet to begin, and no plans were on the table, on May 25 West Tisbury selectmen hosted a standing-room-only meeting at which neighbors tore into the film festival.

Mark Reisman, a resident of Old County Road, said a group of West Tisbury residents who are against the project had formed a group that already had 50 people, and were “prepared to fight it with litigation, if necessary.”

Mr. Reisman accused MVFF leaders of “using means that are sleazy to circumvent local zoning and planning restrictions.”

Ebba Hierta of West Tisbury told selectmen, “Your town is at stake. My town is at stake. We need leadership, and you’re our leaders.”

On June 8, West Tisbury selectmen hosted another standing-room-only meeting, at which residents again spoke against the purchase and implored town leaders to act.

Selectman Richard Knabel presented a draft of a letter, approved that night by his fellow board members, addressed to the eight members of the MVFF board of directors and executive director Thomas Bena, in which selectmen said the MVFF’s plans were of “such a scale as to be beyond all reasonable limits and capacities that could coexist in the long-established peaceable rural neighborhoods that surround the Walsh parcels.”

He asked the MVFF to consider “not only our concerns, but those expressed by the community, and assesses the impact on the small rural setting as well as the community trust that your board and your organization could easily and irretrievably lose.”

He also hinted at the long and arduous road of permitting ahead, which would include a trip to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

Time and again, speakers urged the MVFF to search for another location. This week, the MVFF said that search had already begun.