MVFF bails on Ag Society land deal

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The Martha's Vineyard Film Festival and the Ag Society are walking away from a deal that would have given the festival a new home.

Updated Oct. 23

The Martha’s Vineyard Film festival (MVFF) has announced it would back out of a deal to purchase acreage from the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society. The announcement came by email on Oct. 18, and cited environmental restrictions as a prohibitive factor. 

“State environmental studies were more restrictive than we anticipated, and we decided not to move forward with the acquisition,” the email announcement states.

In the announcement, the MVFF states the Ag Society and the MVFF “remain committed to working together in the future.”

Former MVFF president Steve Bernier paints a different picture. Bernier told The Times the restrictions, which include reserved land for cranefly orchids, weren’t overly burdensome. Bernier said two weeks before the Ag Society and the MVFF were slated to sign a purchase and sale agreement, MVFF founder Thomas Bena allegedly got cold feet. Benier said Bena redirected the MVFF’s focus to a 53-acre parcel at the corner of North Road and State Road. 

Bernier said he strongly disagreed with backing out of the plan to buy 10 acres from the Ag Society, which he called a “storybook deal” that united MVFF, the Ag Society, and Polly Hill Arboretum, and gave the MVFF a “tucked-away” home. Bernier described the cons of the deal as minimal and manageable, and the pros as superlative. In light of Bena’s abandonment of the Ag Society deal, which Bernier said was unfair to the Ag Society, Bernier resigned from the MVFF board.

“I feel good that I had the courage to put my foot down and listen to my inner voice,” Bernier said. Bernier said he hopes he and Bena can bridge their differences and return to what he described as the hands-down best deal for the MVFF, and the best deal for the Vineyard and the Ag Society. Bernier said he saw numerous pitfalls to the MVFF acquiring the 53-acre parcel the nonprofit is allegedly pursuing, and he doesn’t see the upside of such a deal.

“God bless him,” he said of Bena, “but I just don’t see it, and I don’t understand it.”

Bena did not return messages seeking comment. 

Bernier went on to say, if he turned out to be wrong, he’d be upfront about admitting so, but he felt that wasn’t the case. 

MVFF and Ag Society officers have been tight-lipped about the aborted deal. Ag Society president Brian Athearn, Ag Society executive director Kristina West, and MVFF programming director Brian Ditchfield have all declined comment on the deal. 

Ditchfield did acknowledge Bernier’s departure.

“Steve served the board for almost a decade,” he texted. “We are grateful for his service, and thrilled that we can still go to him for advice.”

Interim MVFF president Anne Evasick did not immediately return a message seeking comment.