Land Bank Authorizes Beach Management Plan Despite Neighbors' Doubt
By IAN FEIN
Longtime Tisbury Great Pond beach owners told the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank this week that its plans for the barrier beach will drastically alter the traditional use of that stretch of the south shore.
Island residents have long enjoyed casual use of the Great Pond beach, but the land bank plan will create the first formal public access.
"Having spent a great deal of my life on the pond, I'm concerned about how this will change things," pondfront owner Edward (Owen) Jones said at a land bank public hearing Tuesday night. "I could care less about who owns the beach, but I'm concerned about how it is used."
Despite concerns raised at the sometimes contentious meeting, the West Tisbury land bank town advisory board later that night unanimously approved its management plan for the 200-foot stretch of beach the agency purchased in July 2004. The land bank hopes to open the property to the public by next summer.
"To me it's a shame that we're sitting here arguing over [two dozen] people down there on that beach," said advisory board member William Haynes. "It's a gorgeous, beautiful beach, and it's a shame that whole south shore doesn't get more use."
The land bank Tisbury Great Pond beach parcel raises the often touchy subject of beach rights on the Vineyard - where almost the entire shoreline is held in private ownership, and keys to gated beaches can cost as much as a single-family home.
Other Great Pond beach owners said on Tuesday that they have never marked property boundaries along the shore, but both they and land bank officials acknowledged this week that such longstanding practices will by necessity change because of the public parcel located near the middle of the one-mile barrier beach. The land bank is a public conservation organization that buys land for recreational use with a transfer fee collected on most Island real estate transactions.
The chairman of the Quansoo Beach Association, which controls the western length of the beach accessible by a long dirt road in Chilmark, told land bank board members on Tuesday that visitors to the public beach will not be allowed onto Quansoo association property.
"We will increase our enforcement because of the changed situation," said chairman James White, a seasonal Chilmark resident. "Obviously it's a delicate issue, but one we would like to see worked out."
The land bank ownership also may lead to a conflict regarding the regular opening of the Great Pond to the Atlantic Ocean. Since at least the 17th century, pondfront owners have periodically cut the barrier beach to improve water quality by flushing the pond and managing its depth. The riparian owners determine where to open the pond based on natural conditions, and, for the last few years, the cut has been directly through the land bank beach.
A century-old state law appears to give riparian owners the right to open the pond as needed, but land bank board members are exploring whether they can prevent the cut from taking place on their property. They said they want to protect their stretch of beach for the public if neighboring owners do not allow access to their property during the opening of the pond.
"It doesn't seem quite fair that if we own the place that is most conducive to drain, the public won't be allowed on the beach," Mr. Haynes said on Tuesday. "I have real strong feelings about the opening situation and our rights to the beach... We should have our attorney see if we're being discriminated against."
Quansoo association member Mary Jane Pease asserted that the cut will continue to take place as it has in the past.
"The cut will go wherever it needs to be. The quality of the pond is far more important than a few lots," Mrs. Pease said. "This is something the land bank may not have taken into account before its purchase. But if it doesn't drain, the pond will become a cesspool."
The beach parcel is one of two West Tisbury pondfront properties the land bank purchased in recent years by deliberately masking its identity as a public agency. After revealing the secret purchases in November 2004, land bank officials justified their actions by noting that the previous owners would not have sold the properties to the public.
The method of acquisition was not discussed at the Great Pond public hearing on Tuesday, though three members of the Lewis family, who unwitting sold the barrier beach parcel to the land bank for $320,000, sent strong letters of opposition to the land bank this week. West Tisbury seasonal resident Mia Lewis said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that she and her siblings, prior to the sale, spent months negotiating with the land bank attorney - who claimed to be representing a group of families - in an attempt to prevent some of the specific conflicts that are now taking place.
Ms. Lewis said members of the public frequently use the barrier beach by walking over from The Trustees of Reservations' Long Point Wildlife Refuge, about a quarter-mile to the west, and noted that deed restrictions were drafted to ensure that such use did not change. She said she was glad that public access will continue, but expressed concern that the land bank management plan - which calls for, among other things, a property attendant and boat landing site marked by flags on the pond side of the parcel - will deteriorate the unregulated character of the area.
"The purpose of the land bank is to save land that is going to be lost otherwise, not to take property that is already saved and ruin it," Ms. Lewis said. "This has always been a stretch of land without signs, without property markers, without attendants, and the way that beach has been used until now has not been a threat to the environment. All these new things will irrevocably change the way that whole stretch of beach is used."
The land bank will designate its Sepiessa Point Reservation - off Tiah's Cove Road on the other side of the pond - as the official public access point to the barrier beach parcel. Pondfront owners asked the land bank this week to limit the size and number of motorboats making the three-quarter-mile trip across the pond, but land bank officials maintained that they had no jurisdiction over use of the state-owned waters.
Neighboring owners also questioned the enforcement ability of the land bank to limit the number of people on its beach property to 28, as required by deed restrictions. Land bank executive director James Lengyel said the property foreman will take whatever action necessary.
"Concerns about enforcement are raised at every land bank hearing for water-access property," Mr. Lengyel said on Tuesday. "But I dare say, you do not hear that the land bank is failing to enforce its management plans."
The land bank modeled its Tisbury Great Pond beach management plan on similar barrier beach properties it owns on Chilmark Lower Pond and Edgartown Great Pond. Some neighbors this week expressed concerns about safety at the West Tisbury beach, noting that a fatal drowning occurred off the Chilmark land bank beach this summer.
Longtime pondfront and beach owner Malcolm Jones noted on Tuesday that the safety concerns will be heightened now that the land bank has staked the edges of its beach property - legal markings that were previously absent along that stretch of shore.
"On our property, we might now be responsible if someone drowns," Mr. Jones said. "When you put that post in the beach, you make it very clear for lawyers who owns what, and how much money they have."