Camping Area Gains Support

Environmental Bond Bill Carries $3 Million Earmark Toward Purchase of Old Webb's Site in Southern Woodlands

By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer

A $700 million state environmental bond bill is now set for a vote in the state legislature, and includes a $3 million earmark toward the purchase of the former Webb's Camping Area in Oak Bluffs.

Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington said yesterday the earmark spells possible good news for the town of Oak Bluffs - but also said it should not be construed as an endorsement of the recent agreement signed by Oak Bluffs selectmen in support of a plan for a luxury golf and housing development in the town's southern woodlands.

"Nobody is endorsing plans here," said Mr. Turkington yesterday. "We've been approached about what we can do to help protect some of the southern woodlands, but it's not the state's call whether it's a golf course next door or what's next door.

"What they are interested in is this particular campground site," he said.

The former family campground includes about 80 acres off Barnes Road. The property is now part of a much larger parcel of about 270 acres owned by Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith. All of the land is located in the southern woodlands.

The environmental bond bill was reported out of joint conference committee yesterday and is now set for a vote in the waning days of the legislative session. The legislature adjourns its formal session for the year on July 31.

The bill is expected to come before the House for a vote on Monday. It began as a $750 million bill filed by acting Gov. Jane Swift last year; the state Senate later approved a $950 million version of the bill, and the House a $600 million version.

"This bond bill is the most comprehensive and largest bond bill passed for the environment in recent memory," said Jim Hunt, assistant secretary to Robert Durand, secretary of the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.

Environmental bond bills are typically approved every five years. In 1996 the state approved a $499 million such bill, but Mr. Hunt said since then the legislature has worked to clean up many of what he termed dormant accounts, which makes the current bill more meaningful. "This bill is more real in that sense," he said.

Mr. Turkington said it is important to remember that the bond bill only authorizes spending, and many of the projects listed in the bill will not in fact receive any funding.

"It's an authorization piece," he said. "It isn't like ‘here's the money' - it sets aside money that can be used for certain capital purchases."

The state has capped all bonding at $1.2 billion a year, and any spending in the environmental bond bill must come under the cap.

"Any purchases made over the next two years have to fit within the total expenditure cap - all the highway, education, courthouse - everything that is capital spending. It's not appropriated, it's borrowed money. We are authorizing money to be spent, but the actual spending will probably be more like $30 or $40 million a year," Mr. Turkington said.

Mr. Hunt would not discuss the earmark for the former Webb's Camping Area. "I would not want to comment about individual earmarks until the bill is passed. We will have to do an individual analysis on each project," he said from his office in Boston yesterday."

He did speak about the bill in general, calling it a key component of the state open-space plan.

"This bill is critically needed for projects across the commonwealth, and land acquisition is a primary example of the great work we can do with these funds, whether it is on Martha's Vineyard, Cape Cod or elsewhere in Massachusetts," Mr. Hunt said.

Mr. Hunt said Mr. Turkington, who is a member of the Committee on Natural Resources, was a key member of the delegation that worked on the bond bill.

"The Cape delegation, and in particular Mr. Turkington, have been helpful in moving this bill," he said.

Mr. Hunt said the state has made long strides in the last five years in the race to protect more open space across the commonwealth. Between 1990 and 1998, he said, 100,000 acres of open space were protected by EOEA. Since 1998 the state has protected 140,000 acres of open space at a lower cost than the previous 100,000 acres, he said.

Land protection tools like agricultural preservation restrictions and partnerships with land trusts and private owners all helped contribute to the lower costs, Mr. Hunt said.

"Secretary Durand is a stalwart, and I think we've made a lot of progress," he added.

In other legislative news yesterday, Mr. Turkington said a date has now been set for a public hearing on a bill to allow the town of Oak Bluffs to withdraw from the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

The hearing will be held in Oak Bluffs on Sept. 12, but the location has not yet been determined, Mr. Turkington said. The hearing is tentatively set for noon.

The bill was filed after Oak Bluffs voters agreed to take the first step toward withdrawing from the commission at a special town meeting in March. Permission is needed from the state legislature because the MVC was created by an act of the legislature.

The vote by the town came amid widespread anger and confusion after the commission rejected Mr. Kupersmith's golf course development plan for the southern woodlands for the second time. The developer had threatened to build a massive Chapter 40B affordable housing project if the golf course project was not approved.

The political climate changed later when the MVC won a landmark court decision granting the regional planning agency full power of review over 40B housing projects.

Mr. Turkington said yesterday that he has received a fair amount of mail about the bill - all of it against withdrawal from the commission. But he said he will support the vote of the town and shepherd the bill through the legislature, even though he may not agree with it.

"The town meeting voted and therefore we are obliged to file the bill, although if I were a town meeting member I don't think I would have voted for this, especially in view of the recent court decision which appears to leave the commission as the only thing standing between Oak Bluffs and 366 houses on that land," Mr. Turkington said.

If the bill is approved by the state legislature, a second vote by the town would be required.

"Obviously this is the town's choice, not mine, but in general I think the commission has proven itself a valuable asset," Mr. Turkington said. "There aren't any commission-free zones on the Island and I don't think a town would want to be a commission-free zone. But that's their choice."