The leading spokesman for the Herring Creek Farm Trust told the Edgartown planning board this week that the sale of the farm to a private buyer now hinges on the board's approval of a luxury home subdivision plan for the farm.
"We have had some discussions, but let us say that those discussions start from a platform, and the success of all depends on the approval of a 32-lot plan for Herring Creek Farm," said Stuart Johnson, a trustee for the farm trust.
The remark came during a public hearing on Tuesday night in the Edgartown town hall.
Reportedly talks are under way with a group of private buyers for the sale of the farm.
Amid cryptic statements about a "white knight" and broad hints dropped into the midst of public forums, Mr. Johnson has been actively engaged in recent months in subtle and unusual attempts to convince public officials that the 32-lot plan will never really be developed, but is only needed to create a high appraisal value for the pending private sale.
The 32-lot subdivision plan for the farm was approved by the commission in a 7-6 vote two months ago.
The cluster plan still needs approval at the local level, including a special permit from the planning board and also approval from the board of health.
The planning board hearing began this week and will continue again on Jan. 30.
The hearing began with a presentation of the development scheme for the 215-acre farm that fronts the Atlantic Ocean, Crackatuxet Cove and the Edgartown Great Pond. The farm is owned by Neil and Monte Wallace, former longtime seasonal residents.
The now-familiar development plan calls for dividing the farm into 33 lots, including five existing lots with homes. One lot would be used to build a caretaker's cottage for the subdivision. The plan calls for placing a conservation restriction on the entire East Field on the property and limiting the use of the field to low-nitrogen agriculture such as hay crops or sheep grazing.
Mr. Johnson and two planners from Sasaki Associates described other details, including the location of the houses, building envelopes and the complicated high-technology sewage treatment system planned for the development.
Mr. Johnson briefly described the 10-year history of the development plans for the farm, going back to 1990 when the first plan was filed to build 54 homes and two private clubs on the property.
The 54-lot plan was denied by the MVC in in 1993 and is still the subject of a pending court appeal.
Using a series of plans and drawings, Mr. Johnson began with the old and moved into the new, showing how the density of the plan had been gradually reduced over the years. He underscored the elimination of all development from the East Field, and he called the septic plan for the development a "sea change," crediting MVC water quality staff planner William Wilcox for much of the work.
"It is in essence the brainchild of Bill Wilcox," Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Johnson and his associates also reviewed some of the 22 conditions attached to the plan by the Martha's Vineyard Commission.
Mr. Johnson had effusive words of praise for one condition that creates incentives for reducing density by combining lots. He repeatedly called the condition visionary.
He said he disagrees with one condition that eliminates a 250-member beach association from the plan. The Herring Creek Farm Trust recently sued the commission in an appeal of the condition.
"I protected my rights by using my ability to challenge the condition in court, but as far as you are concerned, it is off the table," Mr. Johnson told the planning board.
Board member Norman Rankow later questioned Mr. Johnson about the meaning of the statement.
"Beach rights off the table, so I can be clear - what you are doing to sue the Martha's Vineyard Commission is one thing, but what does that mean about the plan that is in front of us?" Mr. Rankow said.
"I am simply protecting my rights," Mr. Johnson repeated.
"Or you could just drop it from the plan," Mr. Rankow said.
Mr. Johnson said he will continue his court challenge of the condition.
"And if you were to win your lawsuit?" asked planning board member Alan Wilson.
"I would be coming back to you to begin a fresh process at that point," Mr. Johnson replied.
Mr. Rankow also questioned Mr. Johnson bluntly about his earlier remarks alluding to the purported talks with a private buyer for the farm.
"Could you elaborate on what you mean?" he said.
"It has been reported in the press that Herring Creek Farm is having discussions with third parties, and that the third parties would be interested in even further reduction in lots - I am a party to those discussions, they are happening, but they depend on this plan," Mr. Johnson replied.
Mr. Johnson also implied that the MVC was a willing player.
"The Martha's Vineyard Commission had the foresight to pick up on that concept and put it right in their conditions," he said.
"Refresh my recollection - what did the Martha's Vineyard Commission say about that?" asked planning board chairman Kenneth Southworth.
Mr. Johnson pointed again to the condition creating an incentive to combine lots in the development. "I would repeat that this subject of incentives is so visionary and so imaginative," he said.
Questions from planning board members zeroed in on a number of issues overlooked by the commission in its review, including outdoor lighting and structures in the East Field.
Board member Alison Cannon asked about restrictions on outdoor lighting in the subdivision; trust spokesmen admitted that there were none, but agreed to return to the next public hearing with a proposal to limit the use of outdoor lights around houses and on the roads.
"That whole area is amazing for stars," said Mrs. Cannon.
Mr. Southworth said it is an important issue for the planning board. "We have an unfortunate example on the harbor and we hear a lot of talk around town about light pollution," he said.
The leaching field for the sewage treatment system will be located under the East Field, and planning board alternate Paul Brewer asked about structures associated with the treatment system. Michael McGrath, the trust engineer who designed the system, said it includes vent pipes, and one commission condition requires the pipes to be located in the shrubbery along the edge of the field. He also said carbon material for the system would be housed in a structure about half the size of a one-car garage.
This caused some raised eyebrows.
"I am concerned about anything visual in the East Field," said planning board member Michael Donaroma.
Mr. McGrath said the material could be stored in an underground structure; planning board members nodded their assent.
Mr. Southworth read into the record letters from the town resident homesite committee, the Katama Airfield and the Edgartown Ponds Area Advisory Committee.
The ponds committee had pointed comment about the density of the subdivision, especially the plan to build several houses near the shore of the Great Pond.
"Development in the 100-year flood zone does not protect and promote the health, safety, convenience and general welfare of the inhabitants of the town. . . . The committee believes the preservation of open space should be applauded, but the detriments of the intense development along the shore diminishes its value," wrote committee chairman Steve Ewing.
The committee urged the planning board to adopt a condition to create a formal arrangement between the farm owners and the town over restoration and maintenance of the Crackatuxet Cove sluiceway.
Town health agent Matt Poole and shellfish constable Paul Bagnall both said they will reserve comment on the development plan for the next public hearing.
Edgartown selectman Fred B. Morgan Jr., an outspoken opponent of the subdivision plans for the farm over the years, reflected a weary resignation that development of the spectacular Great Plains farmland is now almost inevitable.
"We'd like to see nothing out there, but it can't be, so we only hope that it can be improved by the planning board. It appears as thought this may the best we can get - although I am not sure about that," Mr. Morgan said. He continued:
"Stuart says the beach club isn't an issue - well, it is an issue as far as the town is concerned. I hope I am still around and that I am still serving the town when we say goodbye to the Herring Creek Farm Trust and to the Wallace brothers."
Mr. Southworth said the board will make a site visit to the farm before the next hearing. He appointed Mr. Brewer to sit as an alternate in the event that the planning board encounters absenteeism for any reason.
The Jan. 30 public hearing will be a joint public hearing with the planning board and the board of health.