Land Bank Management Plan at Old House Pond Is Unsettled

By IAN FEIN

Saying there is value in leaving some places difficult to find, West Tisbury residents this week told Martha's Vineyard Land Bank officials that the conservation organization will harm Old House Pond by opening it to the public.

More than two dozen town residents attended the public hearing on Tuesday to comment on the land bank's management plan for the 11-acre pondfront property. The sometimes emotional remarks echoed a public hearing last April, when an earlier version of the plan met with similar opposition.

Island farmer and Martha's Vineyard Commission member Andrew Woodruff, who does not live near the pond, spoke strongly against the land bank plan. He said that even without public access he had been visiting the pond for 35 years, and he described how special it is to him.

"It is the most pristine and tranquil place I have ever experienced in my whole life," Mr. Woodruff told land bank officials on Tuesday. "It is very rare for me to say this about the land bank, but in this case I feel that it has put recreation before preservation. I'm really concerned about this plan. I really am," he continued.

"With 80,000-plus visitors to this Island in the summer - and only one really precious freshwater pond - there is no question that you will be overburdening this pond. The decisions you make today will have a profound effect in the future."

Old House Pond, also known as Ice House Pond, is a freshwater glacial kettle pond hidden in the woods off Lambert's Cove Road. Island residents have historically enjoyed casual use of the pond, but the land bank purchase will for the first time open formal public access.

Mr. Woodruff on Tuesday said he also feels that, in this case, the neighbors have legitimate concerns about the potential impact of the land bank property on their way of life. He explained how clearly a sound from one side of the pond carries to the other.

"You can hear a conversation; you can hear a car door close; you can probably hear a nickel drop," Mr. Woodruff said. "I think this plan should move a lot slower. I think less is more."

After a similarly contentious public hearing last spring, the land bank submitted an earlier version of the management plan for state approval. But citing concerns about potential impacts to water quality and rare species, the Massachusetts Secretary of Environmental Affairs in June denied the plan - the first time in the land bank's 20-year history that it failed to win approval for one of its management plans.

At the request of the state's top environmental official, the land bank this winter conducted additional studies of the pond and surrounding species, and is now finishing a revised plan to resubmit to the state. The West Tisbury land bank advisory board will meet on Thursday to take up the plan, which also must be endorsed by the central land bank commission before it is sent to Boston.

The timeline suggests that the property - which the land bank is now calling Manaquayak Preserve - will remain closed to the public for the duration of the 2006 summer season.

The central question in the management plan is how much public access the land bank should provide. The two main concerns are potential impacts to the surrounding neighborhood and environmental impacts to the pond. State environmental officials described the kettle pond shore habitat as one of the most rare and fragile in the region.

Although some land bank officials have adamantly defended the proposed level of public access, not one member of the public at either hearing or in more than 30 pieces of written correspondence over the last year has argued in favor of increased access to the pond.

The current version of the land bank management plan calls for limiting the number of people allowed on the property at any one time to 20, and the town advisory board agreed this week to lower the proposed trailhead parking to between four and ten vehicles, instead of the previous range of six to 12 vehicles.

While a number of people at the public hearing on Tuesday said they appreciated the reduction in trailhead parking, some repeated earlier suggestions that the land bank should consider starting with no parking spaces at the Old House Pond property.

"I came here happy to see you had dropped to four spaces. But after listening to Andrew [Woodruff], I have to agree with him: There should be no cars," said town zoning board of appeals member Roger (Tucker) Hubbell Jr., who lives next door to the land bank property. "Limit it to bicyclists and pedestrians for a year, and see how it goes."

Longview Road resident Jane Baker questioned why the land bank felt it needed to open the pond to the general public.

"Why do you guys want the pond anyway?" Leave it alone," said Mrs. Baker, who is 78. "All my life I've lived near there. People have always been able to get to the pond, and they've never ruined it. If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Some on Tuesday said the land bank should join with other neighbors to pursue ways to improve the water quality of the pond, which has seen a substantial decline in health in recent years. Pondfront owner John Scherlis asked land bank officials to change the water quality goals in the plan from "monitor and maintain" to "monitor and restore."

The water quality study commissioned by the land bank this winter identified the corner of the pond owned by the land bank as the primary source of nitrogen. The study suggested that the nitrogen-rich groundwater is likely coming from FOCUS, a religious youth center that abuts the land bank property.

Freshwater pond scientist Mark Mattson, who works with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection in the division of watershed management and whose wife owned one of the pondfront parcels purchased by the land bank, authored a letter this week that questioned some of the science in the management plan and said it ignored some of the most important recommendations made by the state last June.

Asked to respond to the letter after it was read into the record on Tuesday, two land bank commission members dismissed it as off-base.

"I think [the letter] was pretty rude," said commission member Pamela Goff of Chilmark, who previously suggested that Mr. Mattson influenced other state environmental officials to oppose the earlier plan last year. "Our staff is qualified, and very well educated. We're not creating a PhD document here. We're creating a useful tool for us to do a practical job."

Abutter Mary Robin (Binnie) Ravitch, who owned the other pondfront parcel purchased by the land bank, balanced her criticism of the management plan on Tuesday with some praise.

"The whole Vineyard community is grateful for gifts you have given us," Ms. Ravitch said, congratulating the conservation organization on its 20th anniversary last week. "But I say this with you knowing full well that I am not one bit happy with the method you used to acquire this property."

The land bank in January 2003 purchased the pondfront lots through a straw agent representing a blind trust, and did not reveal that it was the buyer until November 2004. The land bank cloaked its identity in the $2 million real estate transaction - as well as in a later purchase of four beach lots off Tisbury Great Pond - believing that the owners would have refused to sell to the land bank.