For Sale: Seven Acres at Herring Creek

FARM Institute Will Leave Its Property; Asking $5 Million

By MANDY LOCKE

FARM Institute, the novice non-profit dedicated to bolstering the Vineyard's agricultural heritage, is putting its first Island home up for sale, planning to surrender a foothold in the storied Herring Creek Farm.

The transaction will help bankroll the institute's vision for neighboring Katama Farm - a 190-acre spread that the town of Edgartown turned over to FARM Institute this spring.

The $5 million asking price includes outright ownership of a seven and a half-acre parcel complete with a three-bedroom farmhouse, a number of barns, and a two-bedroom barn apartment. Also part of the package is a 99-year lease on a 40-acre field owned by the Nature Conservancy, now used for cow grazing.

The seven acres of land and buildings are assessed for just over $1.1 million, but institute leaders say that amount does not reflect the true value of the farm.

"Five million dollars is a bargain for this property. There is no comparable piece of property," said Sam Feldman, institute board member and co-founder of the nonprofit. The buyer could potentially receive a tax incentive for entering into an agreement with the non-profit group, institute leaders said.

Herring Creek Farm Landowner Association members were not surprised by the nonprofit's desire to sell.

"Once we knew they won the bid for Katama Farm, we certainly weren't surprised. It made good sense for them. Katama Farm's a place where they can have a bigger operation. But I'm glad they'll be in the neighborhood. They do a great service," said Tom Chase, a Nature Conservancy official who was involved in the complicated discussions that led to his organization, FARM Institute and private owners all becoming partners in the 2001 transaction creating the landowner association.

That transaction, involving a $64 million sale by Neil and Monte Wallace, ended a decade of battles over the future of the 215-acre Herring Creek Farm. It closed a chapter in the Island's history fraught with more than seven lawsuits against the town and the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

It ended earlier plans for a 54-house development. More than 102 acres of rare sandplain grassland were preserved; future growth was limited to six luxury homes. The Herring Creek Farm deal offered a bit of everything - conservation land, farming and prime seasonal homeownership for the likes of comedian David Letterman and software tycoons Denise Lahey and Roger Bamford.

And the purchase created a home for the young FARM Institute - allowing it to begin teaching Island youth the seasonal rhythms of farming on land that had been used for crops and grazing for the better part of two centuries.

"We were intent on making sure that the purchase represented the community's interest in farming. It was our best effort to [ensure] that farming remain an active ingredient of that landscape," Mr. Chase said.

Because of restrictions on use built into the legal documents, their departure, FARM Institute leaders say, will not undermine that effort.

"We really feel good about our role to help protect that farm. Whether we own it is not germane to its success," said John Curelli, executive director and co-founder of the institute.

The sale's profits will be used to pay off a $1 million mortgage and recoup what FARM Institute leaders say were hundreds of thousands of dollars in improvements at Herring Creek Farm. More will be rolled over into expected capital expenses at Katama Farm. Any further excess will feed into an endowment for FARM Institute.

Under terms of the 2001 deal, others in the Herring Creek Farm Landowner Association have first refusal rights before the institute advertises on the open market. The Nature Conservancy has first refusal; after that, the MV Regency Group, representing television host Letterman, must waive rights to the farm.

Mr. Curelli said the institute has received no indication the existing owners will buy out their interest. Association members have no rights to approve or reject any buyer.

"If somebody wanted to do something to that land that we didn't have the foresight to protect against, we'd jump in. I'd be very surprised if the FARM Institute, as a partner of ours, would ever enter into an agreement that would infringe on the intentions for that property," said Mr. Chase. "The restrictions prevent anything negative from happening there."

According to the deed restrictions on this portion of Herring Creek, active farming must take place.

"The key word is active. The buildings and the fields must not be dormant," Mr. Curelli explained. The Edgartown Conservation Commission can enforce that provision.

Institute officials would consider caretaking the land for a new owner under a management fee, but they admit keeping up the Herring Creek operation as well as the startup at Katama Farm could strain their resources.

The conservation restrictions that accompany the seven-and-a-half acre farm are so detailed that they limit the number of children and animals allowed on the premises at any one time. The sole topic of one six-hour negotiation session prior to the 2001 sale, Mr. Curelli said, focused entirely on the acceptability of pigs. The bottom line: The institute was not allowed to have pigs, but chickens were approved. Bee hives were also prohibited.

In the summer of 2002, only 12 youngsters could participate in the institute's day camp at one time, although the landowner association upped the number to 24 this summer.

And, contrary to FARM Institute's inclinations, any public access to the land was expressly denied.

"We thought that as time went on, we'd be able to ameliorate those restrictions - that in time, we'd be able to prove [to other association members that] we weren't bad neighbors. The restrictions are still an overhang for the farm and the public," said Mr. Feldman.

"The great beauty for us is that sign at the entrance of Katama Farm: ‘Public Welcome,'" Mr. Curelli said.

Institute leaders say their decision to sell comes at a timely moment.

"The precipitator to this was that Katama Farm came on the market. We'd always felt restrained and contained at Herring Creek. We wanted to be thinking of alternatives. We wanted broader access to our farm," said Mr. Feldman.

Freeing itself from the Herring Creek mortgage, which cost the institute more than $50,000 a year, will help ensure financial viability at Katama Farm, he and Mr. Curelli said.

Katama Farm is in a state of disrepair, needing substantial and costly capital improvements before the institute can operate classrooms and house staff there. Historically, Katama Farm's tenants have paid for capital improvements as part of the terms of their lease. But institute leaders - who have not yet signed a lease - will be asking the town to kick in money to help combat a leaking silo, and a mildew infestation throughout the farm's dairy processing barn. Any improvements at Katama, however, stay with the property if the institute severs its relationship with the town and the conservation commission.

But for a group whose leaders talk about youngsters and farming like evangelists talk about the Bible, the challenge ahead seems like nothing they haven't already tackled in the first three years of the institute's life.

Mr. Feldman, recounting a tale about a mother telling him of her son thriving through his experience at Herring Creek Farm, said: "That's the bottom line. The rest is just administrative detail."