Aquinnah land to be preserved, open to public

Land Bank, Sheriff’s Meadow combine for $27 million purchase of Kennedy-owned property.

The Martha's Vineyard Land Bank and Sheriff's Meadow Foundation have purchased 304 acres in Aquinnah. - Photo courtesy Sheriff's Meadow Foundation

Updated @ 1 pm

A 304-acre Aquinnah property owned by the estate of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is being purchased by the Martha’s Land Bank and Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation for $27 million. The farmhouse and the immediate land surrounding it will be retained by the estate.
The purchase was announced in a press release Thursday morning, and was sold to the conservation agencies for well below the $65 million asking price.
The land, much of it undeveloped, will be known as Squibnocket Pond Reservation, according to the release. “Upon completion of a standard biological species inventory and final management plan, the majestic dunes, windswept beach, kettlehole pond, wooded trails, and open meadows will be open to the public,” the release states.
“We’ve been working on this very quietly over the last few months,” Adam Moore, Sheriff’s Meadow executive director, said. He said he was “really excited” about the acquisition.
“We’re honored to be the stewards of the land,” he said.
In addition to contributions by private donors, Moore said “100 percent” of the Sheriff’s Meadow board and the same percentage of Sheriff’s Meadow staffers pitched in to help make the purchase.
Moore noted the tract is not open to the public presently, and won’t be for roughly a year while the inventory is done and the management plan hammered out and approved locally and at the state level. Nevertheless, he was excited for the day the public is allowed into the acreage.
“I’m so happy future generations will be able to come and enjoy the land,” he said.
The below-market transaction is expected to be completed by Dec.15, 2020, according to the release, with the $27 million purchase price paid over four years.
“The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission and Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation are thrilled to collaborate on this project of island-wide significance, and we gratefully acknowledge the historic and cultural significance of the land,” said Land Bank executive director James Lengyel and Moore in a joint statement. “We also thank the Land Bank commissioners and town advisory board members for their support of this effort, and the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation donors for their generous financial contributions, and the Kennedy–Schlossberg family for their close cooperation.”
Caroline Kennedy also released a statement: “Our family has endeavored to be worthy stewards of this magnificent and fragile natural habitat, and its sites of cultural significance. We are excited to partner with two outstanding island organizations, and for the entire island community and the general public to experience its beauty. We look forward to many more happy years in Aquinnah.” 

In a written statement, the purchase was praised by Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). “These lands are a very special part of our traditional Aquinnah homelands, and they contain several cultural resources,” she wrote. “Since we certainly couldn’t afford to repurchase the land, we are happy that they and the lands will be protected and preserved. There was an understanding that the tribe and tribal members would always have access to those cultural resources, so this is good news. In the past, we have worked collaboratively regarding the protection and avoidance of those cultural resources. And we hope that going forward that any discussions regarding any changes to the lands and its access will include the tribe and our traditional leadership of our cultural and historic commission.”   

Aquinnah town administrator Jeff Madison said he cannot comment at length until he knows more about the logistics of the transfer and the proposed plan for the land. He did voice concerns over who will manage the land, and how much annual tax revenue the town may lose from the transfer.

Prior to the sale, the property was assessed at $15.1 million, according to town assessors’ records. County records show an attorney representing Onassis purchased the property from Cape Cod Co., a trust for the previous owner, Henry Hornblower II, on Jan. 16, 1978, for $1.1 million.

“I don’t know how much annual tax revenue this transfer is going to result in the town losing, I assume that it will lose some revenue,” Madison said. “Nobody really knows.”

He expressed regret that he believes town officials should have been more clued in on the land planning process before the transfer was finalized. “There is some disappointment that the town was not given an opportunity to participate in the land plan that is being contemplated,” Madison said. 

He said the access to Squibnocket is an “undeniable benefit” to the community, but wondered whose purview the land would fall under, and what enforcing agencies would need to be present there. 

Updated to clarify that the Land Bank and Sheriff’s Meadow have not purchased the farmhouse and farm buildings and to include more comments.  –Ed.