Chappaquiddick's Space Fund, Land Bank Buy Island Trail Link

Gazette Senior Writer

With the national economy stuck in neutral and nonprofit groups scrambling to compete for a shrinking pool of donor dollars, a quiet movement on the tiny island of Chappaquiddick is gaining momentum among landowners to buy open space in their own backyards.

Founded on the simple concept of neighborhood solidarity and completely unfettered by bureaucracy, the Chappaquiddick Open Space Fund also goes against the grain at a time when creeping infrastructure and heavy staffing are on the rise at many conservation organizations.

The fund has collected more than $2.1 million from 196 donors in the last six years, and the money has gone directly to help protect some 400 acres of open space on Chappy, most of it through collaborative purchases with the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank.

This week the open space fund will close on a land purchase of 3.5 acres on North Neck that will provide a key link in a cross-Chappy trail network for the land bank. Total purchase price is $650,000, which will be paid out over the next four years. The Chappy open space fund will contribute $450,000 to the purchase and the land bank will contribute $200,000. The Marsh Hawk Trust, a new land trust arm of the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation, is the bridge between the seller and the buyer.

The seller is Elizabeth Villard, a longtime North Neck resident. A closing is set for August 1. The property sits on a hilltop overlooking a six-hole country golf course with sweeping ocean views that traces its roots back to the turn of the century.

The money to the seller will be paid out in the following way: $50,000 was put down toward the sale at the time the purchase and sale agreement was signed, and $100,000 will be paid at the time of the closing. Ms. Villard will be paid $150,000 a year for the next two years, and in the fourth and final year of the deal the land bank will pay $200,000. All of the money will be funneled to the seller through the Marsh Hawk Trust, which will own the land until the end of the four-year payout. After that the trust will transfer 2.5 acres to Sheriff's Meadow and one acre to the land bank.

All but $100,000 of the open space fund's $450,000 share of the purchase price has been collected or pledged. Most of the contributions for the purchase came from residents of North Neck.

"This is a three-acre lot that's stuck in the middle of something else - the land bank trail easements are the engine that drove this purchase," said Nancy Hugger, who is chairman and a founding member of the open space committee.

Land bank executive director James Lengyel agreed.

"This property did not fit the land bank's goals for property purchase, but the trail easement made it fit for us," he said.

Easements are now in place for a cross-Chappy land bank trail that will run all the way from the tip of North Neck to Wasque via the Brine's Pond property in the center of the small island located off the extreme eastern end of Edgartown. The trail network is now possible in part because of a spiderweb of land bank properties spread across Chappaquiddick; an array of private landowners have helped to fill in the gaps by granting easements for the trail to cut across their properties.

The open space fund began in 1998, when five donors gave $1,043,000; one contribution was an anonymous gift of $1 million. The money went toward the "unbuilding" of the John and Mary Francis house, a house that was torn down on a narrow stretch of sand that fronts the outer harbor and the Chappaquiddick Road opposite Caleb's Pond. The property, which now offers an open vista across the outer harbor, is owned by Sheriff's Meadow Foundation.

Ms. Hugger said the open space committee has found success in working with the smaller "neighborhoods" on Chappy, from the Samson's Hill neighborhood early on, to the most recent work with the historically insular North Neck enclave.

"I can't tell you why it works, but it does - it's amazing and people have been amazingly generous, and they are doing something they believe in. But I cannot explain how it works. It's a miracle, that's all," Ms. Hugger said. Ms. Hugger and her husband, Skip Bettencourt, placed a conservation restriction on 14.5 acres of their own property last year. The restriction includes a land bank trail easement that will allow access to an old cranberry bog on Chappy, and it allows for agricultural use.

In the last six years the Chappy fund has collected several hundred thousand dollars more on top of the original $1 million. Last year, even with no special property purchase on deck, the fund collected $101,580 from 123 donors.

"There is no professional help, it's all volunteer and 100 per cent of what is collected is used for land acquisition," said Lionel Spiro, who is president of the Chappaquiddick Island Association (CIA). The open space committee is one of eight CIA subcommittees. The association pays the postage for the Chappy fund and the money is funneled through the Marsh Hawk Trust at no charge.

Mr. Spiro also praised the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation for its contributions.

"Sheriff's Meadow does not charge us a management fee and they have been a key player in all of this," Mr. Spiro said.

Much like the land bank, Sheriff's Meadow has had an increasingly active presence on Chappaquiddick in recent years. In 1995 the family of Ruth Marshall gave Sheriff's Meadow a conservation restriction on the 15-acre golf course, which the family continues to run as a small public course. Also in 1995 the family of Dr. Edward and Beatrice Self announced that they would give Sheriff's Meadow a restriction on 34 acres at Cove Meadow, located on Cape Pogue Pond in the outer reaches of North Neck. At the time Sheriff's Meadow declared North Neck one of its top priorities for land acquisition.

The land bank also owns two properties at the tip of North Neck; one overlooks the gut at the entrance to Cape Pogue Pond, and the other fronts the inner western shore of Cape Pogue Pond on the opposite side.

Mr. Lengyel said the open space fund is unique. "This is a concept that the land bank had hoped would take hold in the other Island towns, but so far that has not been the case, and this group really stands out. There is something particularly effective about it," he said.

Dick Johnson, the executive director for Sheriff's Meadow, agreed.

"This relationship has been sort of a triad between the Chappy open space fund, Sheriff's Meadow and the land bank, and I think it's one of the great models for cooperative conservation," he said, concluding:

"I keep wondering about why Chappy works so well, and I think one reason is that it is so insular and people feel a sense of ownership. We all keep talking about the Chappy model and we hope it will spread to other places."