Tisbury Great Pond Property Owners Claim Land Bank Attorney Misrepresented Sale

By JAMES KINSELLA

A family that unwittingly sold land to the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank has accused the public agency of misrepresentation - and is calling for an amendment to the land bank statute to prevent such practices in the future.

In a Jan. 4 letter to the Vineyard Gazette, the family - Anthony Lewis and his children Eliza, David and Mia Lewis - said the land bank used subterfuge to acquire four beach lots on the Tisbury Great Pond. "We feel violated by what was done and want to put our thoughts on record," the family wrote.

The letter is published on the Commentary Page in today's Gazette.

In 2003, the family wrote, a Connecticut lawyer "approached one of us and said he had a purchaser interested in buying the lots.

"He declined to name his client, but indicated verbally that it was a group of families who wanted the land for personal recreational use," they wrote. "We found out months later, by reading the newspapers, that the client had in fact been the land bank."

Last July, the family sold the land bank four beach lots totaling 1.9 acres on the Great Pond for $320,000.

The land bank used blind trusts to cloak its identity both in the purchase of the beach lots, and in a $2 million acquisition of 11.1 acres of land at Ice House Pond in early 2003. Land bank officials concealed the agency's identity because they believed that the owners would refuse to sell. Created by an act of the state Legislature in 1984, the land bank buys public conservation land using a two per cent transfer fee on most real estate transactions.

The beach lots on the Tisbury Great Pond will become an Atlantic Ocean adjunct to the land bank's Sepiessa Reservation. Ice House Pond, also known as Old House Pond, is a fresh water glacial kettle pond situated deep in the woods off Lambert's Cove Road. The land bank purchase, which includes a small sandy beach, will open up public access to the pond for the first time.

In its letter, the Lewis family calls for the state Legislature to amend the land bank enabling legislation to prevent misrepresentation in the future.

"State legislation gives the land bank large amounts of money," the Lewises wrote. "Money brings power, and those who have power are always tempted to use it in unaccountable ways. That is the arrogance of power. It is time for the Legislature to amend the land bank's statute to ensure that it acts with openness and honor."

Edith W. Potter, chairman of the land bank commission, declined comment yesterday until she had time to review the Lewis letter.

James Lengyel, executive director of the land bank, said he wasn't present for the conversation between the Lewis family member and the lawyer representing the land bank, and could not comment on what was or wasn't said.

As for the family's call to amend the land bank law, Mr. Lengyel said, "If the land bank commissioners choose to respond, they will."

In the letter, the Lewis family said the land bank could have used the public condemnation process to acquire the land, but instead "dealt deceptively because it thought it could more easily acquire the property than way. In other words, the end justified the means. That was a Soviet, not an American, doctrine."

Mia Lewis, in a separate communication with the Gazette, said the family was "absolutely stunned" to learn that the land bank was the buyer of the lots.

The Lewis family, she said, wanted to sell to a family or a small group of families because it felt that such a move would better preserve the beach.

"We were so concerned about the environmental health of the beach that we placed restrictions on the future use of the lots," Ms. Lewis said. "Far from rescuing the land from opportunistic developers, in this case, it seems to us, it is the land bank itself that is most likely to use the land in an environmentally inappropriate way."

Late last year, the land bank publicly revealed that it had used blind trusts to acquire the Tisbury Great Pond and Ice House Pond properties. Mrs. Potter said that she has heard no criticism from the public about the strategy. Rather, she said, people in the community are pleased about the purchases.

The acquisitions, she said, "did accomplish something for the general public."