West Tisbury selectmen balk at horse trail request

Selectmen took no action on a request to amend conservation restrictions on the DeBlois property to allow for private horse trails.

The property in questions is bordered by Homer's Pond and Watcha pond.

Updated 9 am, Monday, June 27

West Tisbury selectmen met last Wednesday afternoon. Topping the agenda was a request to amend the conservation restrictions placed over 142 acres of the Homer Watcha Trust, whose sole beneficiary is Gerald DeBlois.

Frank Giso, one of the trustees of the Homer Watcha Trust, handed out a map that showed three sections of land, labeled A, B, and C. Mr. Giso explained that technically the A parcels and the B parcels are owned by Homer Watcha Trust. The C parcel is owned by Mr. DeBlois. In total, there are roughly 314 acres, and the only structures on the land are Mr. DeBlois’ main house and a small beach house, according to Mr. Giso.

“It may be the largest privately owned section in all of West Tisbury,” said Mr. Giso.

“Maybe the Island,” said chairman Richard Knabel.

The property is for sale either in total or as separate parcels. Previously listed at $118,000,000, it is now listed as four parcels of $11.5 million, $20 million, $25.5 million and $41 million. One may purchase one, some or all of the parcels, according to Grace Bloodwell, listing agent.

Mr. DeBlois is most publicly associated with the Vineyard Youth Tennis Center, a facility he developed and funded to introduce young people to the sport. The spur for the request is that some prospective buyers are interested in having horse trails.

The very private south shore property borders Edgartown Road and Homer’s Pond to the north and east, and ends on long stretches of South Beach.

“We are required to approve if there are changes to the conservation restriction, and as I understand it, the addition would be horseback trails, which originally were not allowed in the restriction,” executive secretary Jennifer Rand told selectmen.

Selectmen received a letter from the conservation commission objecting to any changes. “They are concerned that there not be a precedent set to amend conservation restrictions, because they are meant to be into perpetuity,” Ms. Rand said. “They are also concerned with habitat fragmentation due to the layout of the trails.”

Mr. Giso said that currently there is horseback riding allowed on the roadways, but that “people have discovered that having the horses in the same area as the motor vehicles is a little hazardous.”

The Homer Watcha Trust approached the Nature Conservancy (TNC), which holds the conservation restriction, about modifying the restrictions. TNC agreed subject to a deal under which it would receive a controlling interest in an abutting parcel.

“What you are saying is that the Nature Conservancy did not object,” said Mr. Knabel.

“They did not object,” Mr. Giso said. “The driver for the Nature Conservancy is to control that [40-acre] parcel and limit any possibility that there could be development by the trust.”

The parcel in question is worth approximately $250,000, according to Mr. Giso: “The way to really look at this transaction is the trust is giving value of $250,000 to the Nature Conservancy, and in return the Nature Conservancy has agreed that we could create these horse trails.”

“How much horse traffic do you anticipate to be on these trails?” asked Mr. Knabel.

“I’m not sure,” Mr. Giso said. He added there is currently no active policing to exclude riders.

TNC Island representative Tom Chase said his primary concern is restoring habitat for some species. “For the Nature Conservancy to agree to an amendment, we have to have an overwhelming conservation advantage,” Mr. Chase said. He said horse trails with the tree canopy above them intact would not cause habitat fragmentation.

“Where is the drive to create horse trails coming from?” asked Ms. Mitchell.

“I think in an effort to offer a greater panoply of pertinent rights to prospective buyers, that’s where it’s coming from,” Mr. Giso said. “We don’t dispute that the ability to put these trails in does have some beneficial impact on the evaluation of the properties that can be built upon.”

Selectman Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter noted that Mr. DeBlois “has been very generous to our community,” but added, “I’m reluctant to approve this, it seems to me the only reason being is to make the property more marketable.”

Mr. Giso said that the property has been on the market for a couple of years.

“I see no benefit on behalf of the town of West Tisbury,” Mr. Manter said. “If we’re going to change the restrictions in place, I’m looking for some public gain here.”

Mr. Manter asked Mr. Giso if he would consider letting people walk or bike these trails certain times of the year.

“I think that there would be resistance to that,” Mr. Giso said. “Public access is a nonstarter.”

Mr. Giso said that there is a possibility the trails would never be built, as it would be a large expense to build and maintain them, and there would first need to be demand.

“It is problematic that the conservation commission does not approve this,” said Ms. Mitchell. “I want to hear more from them on this.”

Mr. Giso was open to that idea. The conservation commission acts in a purely advisory manner. Any change would need approval at the state level.

“We want to take this under advisement, and I perhaps suggest you go back to the conservation commission and have further discussions with them,” Mr. Knabel said.

In other business last week, architect Kate Warner spoke about bike lanes in West Tisbury. Selectmen were in favor of pursuing the idea.

Selectmen approved changes as presented to the Veterans Memorial plaque.

Selectmen also approved John Brennan to a three-year term on the conservation commission, and Andrew Woodruff to a one-year term on the Land Bank advisory committee.

Selectmen began their meeting with a statement condemning the recent Orlando tragedy, where 49 people were killed in a mass shooting.

“Let us have a moment of silence in respect, and consider how we might bring an end to this ongoing slaughter of the innocents,” chairman Richard Knabel said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that the DeBlois property is listed for $118,000, which was the earlier sale price. The property is now for sale as separate parcels or for $98 million in total.