High on Gay Head Cliffs, a Land Bank Beauty

New System of Trails May Result from Sale in Aquinnah


In a move that could resurrect a long-lost museum in Aquinnah and create a network of trails over a dramatic south shore seascape, the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank has agreed to buy the six-acre Vanderhoop homestead just south of the Gay Head Lighthouse.

The purchase price is $1,980,000. As part of the deal, Aquinnah voters will be asked Tuesday night at a special town meeting if they want to purchase the house itself for $218,095, helping to offset the cost of the land for the land bank.

Aquinnah selectmen and other town leaders are already backing a plan to convert the historic five-bedroom house into a home for the Aquinnah Cultural Center, which would be devoted to the history of town and tribe.

"The land bank has long been interested in the top of the Cliffs," said James Lengyel, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank. The agency collects a two per cent transfer fee on most real estate transactions on the Island and uses the funds to buy conservation land.

"What's exciting about this are two things. It's high above the beach on a cliff, and you have that thrill of being above the seas," he added. "Secondly, the view pinpoints Noman's Land. You feel like you are walking right to it."

The land is also significant because it abuts seven acres of land bank property on the north side and another six acres of land owned by Sheriff's Meadow Foundation on the east side.

While the purchase won't afford the public any new beach access, it's likely that the two land conservation groups will collaborate on a system of trails that will give hikers and walkers an expansive ocean view.

"We'd like to put in a joint trail system just back from the cliffs," said Sheriff's Meadow executive director Richard Johnson. "It will make a really spectacular network, but it will take some time so we don't do anything that will harm the cliff."

For Aquinnah leaders, the land bank move comes at an ideal time, offering the town and the tribe the chance to collaborate on a project to transform the old Vanderhoop house into a museum.

"I would envision the town and the tribe working together to preserve the building," Aquinnah selectmen chairman Michael Hebert told the Gazette yesterday.

Mr. Hebert said a cultural center in that house could someday create revenue for the town.

Already, town officials are planning to use funds from the Community Preservation Act to help cover the costs of purchasing the house. The act allows the town to place a three per cent surcharge on real estate transactions in Aquinnah.

With matching funds from the state, that surcharge generates $68,000 a year for the community preservation projects which can include affordable housing, open space, recreation - and historic preservation.

Yesterday, Derrill Bazzy, chairman of the community preservation committee, expressed his joy at the chance for the town and the pricetag.

"This is once in a lifetime opportunity. You can't beat the price. How many chances do you get to buy that view for $200,000," he said. "We're feeling like all the pieces are fitting together."

The old Gay Head museum was torn down more than 30 years ago. It was housed in an old inn and located in the circle at the Cliffs. Financial problems forced its closure in the late 1960s, according to accounts in the Gazette.

The effort to revive the museum began more than six years ago, and now the Aquinnah Cultural Center exisits as its own separate nonprofit organization. Berta Giles Welch, chairman of the cultural center, told the Gazette that the goal of her group is to make a new museum a reality through fund-raising efforts.

Ms. Welch worried that the land bank deal for the Vanderhoop property has come at a time of strained relations between the town and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

Just this week, a Dukes County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the tribe in a zoning dispute between the tribe and the town. The decision was a victory for the tribe, affirming its sovereign immunity from lawsuits.

While town leaders must now decide whether to challenge that court decision with a legal appeal, they are also faced with a chance to work with the tribe on a museum.

"This is giving the town and tribe the opportunity to work toward something positive," said Ms. Welch. "There are a few programs where town and tribe have collaborated. There's not enough of that going on."

Mr. Bazzy said he is eager to investigate the history of the Vanderhoop homestead. William Vanderhoop, 75, told the Gazette yesterday that he can't recall when the house was built but he remembers playing there on the sunporch with his relatives when he was a boy.

"It was a gathering place and place to shove off from for either the south or north shore," he said.

The house is also reputed to be haunted, a tidbit of information that Mr. Vanderhoop didn't refute. "I heard noises there. You can laugh, but I heard sounds coming from upstairs," he said. "But nobody ever got up to investigate."