Land Plan for Ice House Pond Stirs Heated Commission Debate

By IAN FEIN

Angry exchanges and charges of bad faith erupted during a Martha's Vineyard Land Bank meeting called this week to discuss the draft management plan for Ice House Pond Preserve.

Land bank commissioner Michael Stutz of Aquinnah said the plan has numerous inconsistencies and huge holes. He called for additional study of the pond this summer, and criticized what he said was an unprecedented effort to rush through the management process.

"We've never done this before. It's wrong. It's a mistake," Mr. Stutz said. "It's putting before the public a plan which to me personally is embarrassing and unacceptable, and we should not be doing that."

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The draft plan, authored by land bank ecologist Julie Schaeffer and released last month, proposes a 12-vehicle trailhead and allows for swimming, fishing, hunting, mountain biking and horseback riding on the 11-acre pondfront property. The plan would also prohibit boats, alcohol and nudity, and discourage trampling along the pond shore by creating a single trail access to a raised fiberglass swimming perch.

Some land bank representatives said that a slower, gradual opening of the property would be more appropriate for the ecologically fragile area, while others suggested the plan might be too modest as is.

Commission member Pamela Goff of Chilmark defended the plan and called attention to Mr. Stutz's relationship with other pondfront owners.

"I think Michael's done a wonderful job in his lawyerly way for his friends who asked him to defend their pond," Ms. Goff said. "But I think this is an excellent plan. I think Julie's science is good; I think her botany is good. I absolutely understand concerns of the neighbors, but criticism of this plan is just obstructionist."

Tensions have run high over the West Tisbury property, which the land bank purchased two years ago through a straw agent representing a blind trust. The land bank cloaked its identity in the real estate transaction - as well as in a later purchase of four beach lots off Tisbury Great Pond - under the belief that the owners would have refused to sell the parcels to the public conservation agency.

Island residents have historically enjoyed casual use of the hidden freshwater pond off Lambert's Cove Road, but in recent decades access to all water and pondfront properties has diminished with increasing private ownership.

The land bank purchase will for the first time open formal public access to Ice House Pond, also called Old House Pond.

At the joint meeting between the land bank central commission and the West Tisbury town advisory board on Monday, Mr. Stutz was the only person to mention the means by which the land bank obtained the two pondfront lots.

"First of all, we're in trouble already for having used a straw to buy this property," Mr. Stutz said. "And now we come in with an extraordinary procedure that we've never used before, proposing a very significant use of this property straight out of the box, and it's just wrong."

Mr. Stutz suggested that some West Tisbury advisory board members were pushing for too much recreational use of the property, which he said goes against the central tenets of the land bank as a conservation organization.

"If you look at our legislation our job is to conserve land . . . it's not to bring public recreation to this property," Mr. Stutz said. "This property should be and will be open to the public, but all we're talking about here is recreational use. What I'd like to talk about is conservation of this property and protection of this fragile pond. I think that should be our focus and our most important interest here. And no one's talking about that."

West Tisbury advisory board member Michael Colaneri took issue with Mr. Stutz's suggestion of undue pressure, and countered that recreational use can coexist with conservation.

"You can't make accusations like that, Michael," Mr. Colaneri said to Mr. Stutz. "[West Tisbury advisory board member] Billy [Haynes] and I grew up here on the Vineyard and went swimming in there. It's a very special place, and that experience should be carried forward to our children and our grandchildren," he said.

"What we're doing here is a lot less damage than two private big huge trophy houses would have done down there," Mr. Colaneri added.

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Mr. Colaneri said he thought the land bank should allow the public to use the pond in whatever ways the surrounding riparian owners can - including boating, which is not permitted in the draft plan. He suggested that requests from neighbors for further studies and limited public use were disingenuous.

"[The riparian owners] want us to diminish the use on the public side of things, but they don't talk about diminishing the use on their side," Mr. Colaneri said. "Their use of it seems to be okay, but ours doesn't. And I have problems with that."

Mr. Stutz agreed that the land bank should open the property this summer, but said only limited use should be allowed until there is better understanding of the current health and use of the pond.

"Ultimately it seems to me likely that people should be able to swim in the pond," Mr. Stutz said. "But before we open this up to mountain bikes and horses and dogs without leashes and fishermen in waders and kids hunting bullfrogs, we should know whether our impact will be injurious," he said.

"We all share the same dreams," Mr. Stutz added. "It's just a matter of how we get there."

Mr. Stutz again challenged the unprecedented process by which the land bank was adopting the plan. He said that in his 12 years on the commission he had always been allowed to review the draft plan before it was forwarded to the town advisory board for recommendations.

Land bank executive director James Lengyel acknowledged that Monday's meeting was the first time that a joint session of the commission and advisory board occurred so early in the management process. Mr. Lengyel also said it was the first time a town advisory board approved a draft management plan before the commission.

When Mr. Colaneri moved for the advisory board to accept the draft plan as more than adequate, Mr. Stutz asked that he first be given a chance to go over what he said were serious errors and mistakes in the plan.

"Do it between now and the public hearing, Michael," Mr. Colaneri responded. "You can read fast."

Mr. Stutz told Mr. Colaneri to stop interrupting him, and reiterated that he would like the central commission to go through the plan page by page before sending it to the advisory board or to a public hearing.

"And shove it down our throats," Mr. Colaneri quipped. "He's talking about process, but you know the process that has taken place in the past. The central commission has pretty much dictated to the advisory boards what will go to a public hearing. I think this joint session is much healthier, and I would like to see us do more of it."

Although a majority of the land bank representatives on Monday said they would rather start with a smaller parking area for the property, both the advisory board and commission eventually voted to accept the draft plan and schedule a public hearing for April 4.

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Mr. Stutz was the only one to vote against it.

Land bank representatives said they should schedule the public hearing even if they did not agree with everything in the draft plan because they felt it was more important to try to have a management plan in place for this summer.

Commissioners said a plan is needed because the public now knows that the property is owned by the land bank. The property sat without a management plan last summer because the land bank had not yet revealed its ownership.

Mr. Lengyel said the agency held off on publicizing the Ice House Pond purchase to keep its identity hidden during the unrelated Tisbury Great Pond negotiations. The Great Pond purchase went though in July 2004, though the land bank waited another four months, until Nov. 19, to announce the acquisition of both properties.

Mr. Lengyel said this week that it can take months for the state secretary of environmental affairs to approve a land bank management plan once it has been approved at the local level. So even if the land bank adopts a management plan in April, there remains a possibility that the plan will not be in place for this summer.

"As much as I hate to say this - because I'd like to see the public use it - the truth of the matter is if the property didn't get opened this summer and we had to put a fence up and say it was closed for the season, it wouldn't be the end of the world," said Mr. Haynes. "Then we would have time to get it right. And I would like to see us get it right, no matter what."