How much is too much?

The 304-acre parcel purchased for $27 million by the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank and Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation raises some interesting questions about preserving open space on the Island.

Generally, it’s great news that this swath of land previously owned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis will be preserved and become Squibnocket Pond Reservation. The property features “majestic dunes, a kettlehole pond, wooded trails, open meadows, and a windswept beach,” according to the press release announcing the purchase. Once the sale is completed and management plans are created, the idea is to make it accessible to the public.

The rare habitat of coastal heathland (a low-growing shrub) may be the last intact ecological treasure of its kind on the East Coast, according to Sarah Thulin, chair of the conservation commission in Aquinnah. The land also has cultural and historical significance for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), tribal council chair Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said.

Aquinnah officials are rightly concerned about taking this large chunk of valuable land off the property tax rolls. Whenever that happens, it’s the remainder of the property owners in the town who have to make up the difference. Lessening the sting is that the highest-taxed portion of Red Gate Farm — the farmhouse and other buildings — is not part of the purchase, and will continue to pay taxes.

Even before the purchase of this land, 40 percent of the Island’s 57,000 acres was in conservation under the stewardship of the state, the Land Bank, The Trustees of Reservations, Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, and the Vineyard Conservation Society.

But every time land is gobbled up and taken off the market by one of these organizations, it exacerbates the Island’s already dire need for affordable and workforce housing by driving up the value of other real estate on the Vineyard. This at a time when real estate sales are setting a blistering record. In just one year, the Island’s median home sale price went from $875,000 in 2019 to $1,035,000, according to LINK, a listing service that collects data from the Island’s sales. That’s an 18 percent increase. There’s also anecdotal evidence that people purchasing those homes or who already have seasonal homes are planning to stay on the Island longer, perhaps year-round, which would affect services (it already did in the spring, when the Island’s supermarkets were stretched to meet the demand) and require a larger workforce.

As a result of this real estate boom, last week the Land Bank took in $800,000. To put that in perspective, it collected $573,945 during the pandemic-slowed month of May.

All of which brings us back to those questions:

Is it time to re-examine the 2 percent that the Land Bank receives from every purchase on the Island?

Just how much money does the Land Bank need to rake in? 

Should we re-evaluate what types of land the Land Bank can purchase?

Should we either look at legislation that would change the amount the Land Bank gets, and perhaps consider either adding a percentage for affordable housing, or look at an additional funding source for that?

Where does the Island get the money for its other public needs, like affordable and workforce housing?

Are we OK becoming a gated community, moving closer to the national media’s narrative that Martha’s Vineyard is the playground of the rich and famous?

To be clear, the purchase of the Kennedy Onassis property in Aquinnah appears to be a good use of Land Bank funds. We can and should quibble about what the public access will look like, but the idea that people may be able to enjoy this property for hiking, hunting, fishing, and beach access is a positive from the purchase. The property is too far from the Island’s business centers to be used for affordable housing, and had it been purchased by a developer, it would have likely been subdivided and turned into single-family homes out of reach of Island workers, and off-limits to the Island’s other residents.

Still, it’s worth examining just how much property we want to preserve, where this bullish real estate market is taking us, and whether we want to stay on that path.

 

Martha’s Vineyard
57,000 total acres
40 percent in conservation (22,800 acres)
30 percent developable

Nantucket
30,000 total acres
50 percent in conservation (15,000 acres)
8 percent developable