West Tisbury approves 2019 Ag Hall schedule

Sparks fly between Mitchell and Manter before board vote.

Selectman Skip Manter and chair Cynthia Mitchell disagreed on the events planned for Ag Society property. - Rich Saltzberg

West Tisbury selectmen voted unanimously to approve a list of approved uses for the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society’s hall and grounds.

The list comes after extensive deliberation by a working group assembled from members of the Ag Society in conjunction with town administrator Jennifer Rand, town counsel Ron Rappaport, building inspector Joe Tierney, conservation commission chairman Tara Whiting, and Vineyard Conservation Society executive director Brendan O’Neill. The latter two working group members represent the entities that maintain the Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) on the property put in place by Bob and Jeanne Woods. In recent years, questions arose as to whether different uses of the hall and grounds had departed from the strictures of the APR. The working group was assembled to explore that question and arrive at an acceptable slate of events.

One event that was questioned was Fresh Off the Farm, an event scheduled for October 2019. The event is sponsored by the Edgartown Board of Trade, and equally benefits the Ag Society and Island Grown Schools. The question is whether it should be categorized as an “incidental” use, of which the Ag Society is presently allotted only three per year. Fresh Off the Farm would amount to a fourth incidental use and also would only partially benefit the Ag Society, which appeared to run afoul of the APR.

“There was a tremendous amount of discussion about this,” Rand said of working group debate on Fresh Off the Farm. “Generally Ag Society events are events that benefit the Ag Society.” Rand said the working group has considered a possible new event class — a type held once or twice a year where proceeds could be split between the Ag Society and another “agriculturally based” nonprofit.

“After this list is approved, I’d like to continue to work to have a more streamlined permitting process for everyone,” she said.

Selectman Skipper Manter took issue with incidentals on the list. He described some of the uses of Ag Society property as uses the Woods did not intend. “I believe that we’ve lost sight of what the Woods’ wishes were for that property,” he said.

Manter said the fair and Ag Society administration office, in addition to “some very restricted uses of that property,” encompass what’s permissible. “Which I think we’ve gone beyond, and I think we’ve lost sight of,” he said. “I think that the agencies that were responsible for placing that APR may have not done the job they should.”

Manter said he took it upon himself to contact the Woods’ lawyer, Stephen Small, who criticized the type of events now allowed at the hall and on its grounds. In an uncharacteristically tense moment on the board, chairman Cythia Mitchell criticized Manter.

“To say this is highly irregular would be an understatement,” she said of Manter’s solicitation of Small. “We laid out a path, the board endorsed the path that was followed by the working group. I have not read Mr. Small’s opinion. I will not read it today. It’s in correspondence. It’s coming at the 11th hour. It’s not something the board requested. We have counsel. We pay counsel, who was part of the process. This has gone a certain way, and all parties recommending it are in concurrence.”

In his eight-page letter, Small wrote in part, “I can confirm for you that Bob and Jeanne Woods were strong supporters of the MVAS and its mission, and its members. But I can also confirm for you that the very reason Bob and Jeanne restricted the panhandle parcel with an APR before the sale to the MVAS, quoting from my 1998 letter, was that they were ‘concerned … [about] a gradual expansion of activities on the site.’ It was clear that Bob and Jeanne wanted to be certain that future uses of the parcel would be limited, consistent with historical uses of the in-town parcel by MVAS, and consistent with the tranquility in that residential part of the Island, adjacent to the Woods’ larger property. In fact, and more particularly, extensive use, noise, and activity on the MVAS parcel would not be consistent with the goals of what Bob and Jeanne created on the balance of their parcel, the Frances Newhall Woods Nature and Wildlife Preserve.”

O’Neill told The Times the adjacent 500-plus-acre preserve is managed by the Nature Conservancy. The Woods carved off 20 acres from it to create the Ag Society grounds. “The APR does not create any specific limits on numbers of events and/or numbers of attendees,” Small wrote. “I say this with all care and caution, but I think the current levels of use and activities at the MVAS site go well beyond what Bob and Jeanne Woods had in mind when they restricted and then conveyed the property.”

The events schedule and Small’s letter produced a few rounds of impassioned deliberation in the meeting room. Ag Society president Brian Athearn said, “The one thing we are trying to do, which the Woods family did state in that letter, is increase agricultural presence and support on Martha’s Vineyard. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Athearn and Ag Society executive director Kristina West both later told The Times funds generated by events helps support farmers grants, 4-H, scholarships, and other key Ag Society programs. West said the Ag Society garners about 75 percent of its revenue from the Agricultural Fair.

“We get very little else from other sources,” she said. “We’ve been very lucky we haven’t had a significant weather event.”