Aquinnah officials discuss Kennedy Onassis land transfer

Property tax rates will be affected; advisory board will be involved in land management.

— Courtesy Sheriff's Meadow Foundation

Aquinnah officials discussed the effects that the anticipated sale of the Kennedy Onassis property to the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank and the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation would have on the town tax base at a meeting Wednesday morning.

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.

At a selectmen’s meeting Wednesday, town administrator Jeff Madison classified Aquinnah’s tax base as being “very static,” and said that the removal of a portion of the Kennedy Onassis holdings is going to have an impact on the property tax rate.

“The town has town-owned parcels, some of which are valuable, all of which should be considered to be put back onto the tax rolls in whatever capacity is appropriate,” Madison said. “Whether that is through affordable housing or other means.”

Madison said that apart from the fact that a significant portion of the Kennedy Onassis property (the greatest overall assessed property value in Aquinnah) is being removed from the tax rolls, town contributions to regional efforts are putting additional financial strain on the town.

“We have to start planning on ways to bring in revenue to the community,” Madison said. “The concern for others is that something has to give if we are to maintain a community that is viable. That means not only maintaining the tax structure for people of moderate means, but also being able to meet the commitments that seem to be continually made on the town tax base by regional entities.”

He noted the Tri-Town Ambulance building construction for the emergency response service that serves the towns of Chilmark, Aquinnah, and West Tisbury, and said that is just one example of a regional expense impacting the town. 

Madison gave an example of a property off Lighthouse Road that, if it were to be developed, could yield a significant annual contribution to the tax roll. Madison said the town could decrease the minimum lot size, but board of selectmen chair Jim Newman said, “That is very far on one side of the spectrum.”

Madison also mentioned the fact that town emergency manager Gary Robinson would be leaving his position soon, and the town will need to find someone to fill the spot: “Serendipitously, I got an email from the West Tisbury emergency manager about considering regionalization of the emergency management position in Aquinnah. Personally, I haven’t seen a regionalization effort where it hasn’t cost the town more than before the regionalization started.”

As regional contributions increase, Madison said, the town will need to broaden its tax base in order to defer the contributions of individual taxpayers. “If we don’t do that, we will very soon find ourselves priced out of everything,” Madison said.

According to Madison, the tax burden placed on the town by losing a portion of the Kennedy Onassis property may have an effect on the planned improvements to town buildings, and the overall town facilities improvement plan

Although Madison said there are some elements of land management and the impact on the tax base that need to be addressed, he supports the idea of the land being preserved and open to the public.

Whatever land management plan is developed, Madison suggested local folks be involved in the process. 

Sarah Thulin, chair of the Aquinnah conservation commission, said there are still 95 acres of the Kennedy Onassis property, with all the buildings and developed land, that will continue to be assessed, and will “probably” continue to be the highest assessed property tax value in town. She also said there is an advisory board from each Island town that has reviewed and approved this land transfer, and the response was “overwhelmingly positive.”

According to Newman, Aquinnah finance committee chairman Allen Rugg gave a ballpark increase to the property tax rate of about 23 cents per thousand dollars of assessed value. The 2020 residential property tax rate for the town of Aquinnah is currently $6.81 per thousand dollars of assessed value. 

Because Aquinnah utilizes an equalized tax rate, Thulin said, the loss of revenue would be equalized out, so that those who can afford to pay more on their higher-tax properties are required to do so. “I totally hear how important it is to try and maintain tax rates that people can afford. We want people with families to live here,” Thulin said. 

She also said there are several sales pending in town that are going to yield high tax values and will add to the overall tax base.

Thulin noted the importance of the land in terms of the rare priority habitats that are contained there. She said there are multiple endangered bird, plant, and insect species that exist in the area, which will be known as Squibnocket Pond Reservation.

She said the family themselves felt, and continue to feel, very strongly about land conservation and the ecological import of the property. Thulin said they also made a point of doing something that would benefit the Island community by allowing access to the many walking trails, hunting and fishing grounds, and water access areas as part of the land sale.

“They [the Kennedy Onassis family] have stewarded this land since Jackie Kennedy bought it from the Hornblower family in 1978. They wanted to give this back in a way where the public could enjoy the trails that will be developed. There is a mile of Squibnocket Beach being purchased that will be available,” Thulin said. She continued that the rare habitat of coastal heathland in that area may be the last intact ecological treasure of its kind on the East Coast. “And we haven’t even talked about the Native American historical and cultural impact regarding this land,” Thulin said.

According to Thulin, who also serves as the chair of the M.V. Land Bank commission, the commission made it a priority in the terms of agreement for the public to be able to use the property, and for the town to be involved in the land management plan that will be adopted. 

“There will be approximately a year of land surveying done by both Sheriff’s Meadow and the Land Bank in order to determine how to best preserve the land and the rare ecology that exists there,” Thulin said. “I hope that culturally and through the protection of that resource, that everyone will appreciate being there. It is quite a sacred spot.”

Selectman Gary Haley asked what the timeframe would be for the final sale of the property and passing of paperwork. He also asked when the land would be developed and opened to the public. 

Thulin said the closing is slated for Dec. 15, and the habitat and ecological survey work will take approximately a year. She said the family has maintained a number of trails and small access roads running through the property, so a good amount of land is already developed.

She mentioned that as there will be greater access to Squibnocket Pond, she hopes there will be more involvement in the health of the pond and the surrounding environment.

“Squibnocket Pond is not a healthy pond. We are looking to see if there are ways to improve the quality of that, so we are looking to get more people involved in that conversation,” Thulin said.