Old House Pond Plan Allowed, but with Oversight from State

By IAN FEIN

The Martha's Vineyard Land Bank can open its 11-acre property on Old House Pond in West Tisbury to the public, but not without ongoing state oversight, the Massachusetts Secretary of Environmental Affairs said this week.

In a three-page letter to the land bank on Monday, Secretary Stephen R. Pritchard attached a series of conditions to his approval of management plan for the property, strictly limiting the level of public access allowed and requiring the Vineyard public conservation agency to submit annual water quality reports to the commonwealth.

The conditions represent a strongly worded message to the land bank, which over the last year and a half has come under fire from neighbors and other West Tisbury residents for its plans to open the environmentally fragile area.

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 plan will for the first time open formal public access.

The letter this week marked the first time in the land bank's 20-year history that the state's top environmental official attached conditions to a management plan approval, and comes only one year after former secretary Ellen Roy Herzfelder, citing potential impacts to water quality and rare species, denied an earlier version of the plan - also a first for the land bank. The land bank enabling legislation requires that its management plans be approved by the state.

The land bank must also now obtain approval from the West Tisbury conservation commission for its proposed swimming perch and trail down to the pond. The property - which the land bank is calling Manaquayak Preserve - will likely not be opened to the public until next spring or summer.

Land bank ecologist Julie Schaeffer, the chief author of the management plan, said she was pleased that it had been approved.

"I'm excited for the preserve to be open, and for it to be a success," she said.

She said she expected the state to put extra requirements on the management plan, since it had attracted so much attention. She noted it was one of the only times that Vineyard residents sent comments about a land bank plan directly to the state, and suggested that the additional state oversight was because of the neighbors and not the ecology of the preserve. State environmental officials described the kettle pond shore habitat as one of the most rare and fragile in the region.

"I think the management plan addressed the uniqueness of the property in every aspect," Ms. Schaeffer said. "I just think the state wanted to assure the public and the abutters that they will stay involved."

Pondfront property owner Benjamin Reeve, a vocal critic of the land bank plans for the property, spoke for some of the neighbors this week in praising the secretary's conditions.

"We're very grateful for the state's attention to the value of the resource, and we appreciate their efforts," Mr. Reeve said. "The land bank needs to be a preservation entity, and we look forward to its being one."

Controversy over the Old House Pond property stoked a long-simmering debate about the overall goals of the land bank, and the proper balance between the sometimes competing interests of public access and conservation. Some environmental advocates claim that the land bank promotes recreation over preservation, while other Island residents say that the land bank management plans are already too restrictive.

According to the conditions imposed this week, the land bank must return to the secretary of environmental affairs if it wants to expand its vehicle trailhead beyond four parking spaces or allow more than 20 people on the property at any one time. The proposed land bank plan had previously allowed for those numbers to be raised by land bank commission or staff.

The conditions also require the land bank to track the water quality of the pond, and if it falls below certain goals set by the state, the land bank must suspend swimming activity until it commissions a comprehensive watershed analysis and determines the sources and levels of pollution. If swimming is determined to be a significant source, according to the state, the activity should be discontinued until the water quality returns to an appropriate level.

Ms. Schaeffer said she did not expect swimming to have a sizeable effect on water quality, but she suggested that nitrogen output from surrounding septic systems could send the nutrient level above its acceptable goal. She said it is unfair that the land bank would be responsible for studying and possibly mitigating something it did not cause, and noted that the land bank might have to look to the town board of health for assistance.

Established by the Massachusetts state legislature in 1986, the Vineyard land bank buys conservation land with a two per cent transfer fee collected on most Island real estate transactions. Over the last two decades, the organization has spent roughly $130 million to preserve more than 2,700 acres spread out over 64 separate properties, almost all of which are open to the public.

The land bank in January 2003 purchased the property on Old House Pond through a straw agent representing a blind trust, cloaking its identity in the $2 million real estate transaction because the previous owners had earlier refused to sell to the public conservation group. The land bank did not reveal that it was the buyer until November 2004, after it used similar means to buy four beach lots off Tisbury Great Pond.

It is not known whether the land bank has repeated those tactics since.

Secretary Pritchard in his letter to the land bank this week recommended that the land bank work with its Old House Pond neighbors to protect the ecological integrity of the property.

"The land bank commission has a long tradition of high-quality stewardship on the Vineyard," the secretary wrote, "and I trust that you take on the task of managing this new preserve with no less effort, determination, or dedication."