The Martha's Vineyard Land Bank will seal its largest-ever deal today, handing over $18.6 million to Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith and officially taking ownership of 190 acres of the southern woodlands in Oak Bluffs.
Today's real estate closing, expected to take place this morning in an Edgartown law office, marks not only the biggest acquisition in the history of the land bank - both in acreage and purchase price - but also the official end to one of the most divisive and nasty political battles in recent Island history.
The deal, which was brokered last year after months of negotiation, took another full year to reach a closing date while the Oak Bluffs planning board reviewed and approved facets of a transaction that sets aside the majority of the property for land bank conservation while permitting Mr. Kupersmith to build a 26-lot residential subdivision on 90 acres of the woodlands that he still retains.
Mr. Kupersmith had tried for four years without success to build a private, luxury golf course in the woodlands, a bid that divided residents of Oak Bluffs and tested the political stamina and regulatory powers of the Martha's Vineyard Commission.
"We're very happy it's come this far," land bank executive director James Lengyel told the Gazette last night. "We think people will really enjoy it."
News of the imminent inking of the deal was greeted enthusiastically last night in Oak Bluffs.
"The game is over, and everybody's a winner," said Oak Bluffs selectmen chairman Roger Wey. "The town, the Island, Mr. Kupersmith, everybody got something, and the big part is that two-thirds of the land will be preserved forever, for generations. The people who were steadfast during this whole battle should be applauded."
Oak Bluffs selectman Kerry Scott, who fought the golf club plan and rallied against efforts to have Oak Bluffs secede from the MVC, said the land bank's acquisition of the southern woodlands was worth the wait.
"This is an extraordinary purchase," she said. "And it's a wonderful gift to the people of Oak Bluffs. I really feel this huge sense of relief if you look back at how painful and gut-wrenching this was. I say an enormous thank you to the Martha's Vineyard commissioners who stayed the course. They listened to the people of Oak Bluffs and the Island."
Attempts to reach Mr. Kupersmith last night were unsuccessful. Mr. Lengyel said that Brian Lafferty, Mr. Kupersmith's chief spokesman, came to the Island this week for the transaction. Mr. Lafferty also could not be reached for comment last night.
While the land bank has already begun its official study of the property in preparation for a management plan - expected to be finished in the fall of 2006 - Mr. Kupersmith has started his construction project, cutting a roadway from County Road into the northwest section of the woodlands where houses will be built, clustered around a man-made pond and horse field.
The land bank also has plans to conclude a land swap with the town of Oak Bluffs. The conservation agency will take ownership of a town-owned parcel in the interior of the southern woodlands in exchange for 24 acres of land behind the Martha's Vineyard Arena, to be used for resident homesite lots in Oak Bluffs.
Also in the offing is the revival of a campground by the land bank. The woodlands were once home to Webb's Camping Area, 82 acres of rolling fields and pine trees facing Lagoon Pond.
"There will be no decisions about resurrecting the campground until our managers know the property more intimately," said Mr. Lengyel, who pointed out that the ancient ways in the woodlands are open to the public. "Our ecologist has been out there doing species inventory."
Environmental concerns were a driving force behind opposition to Mr. Kupersmith's proposed Down Island Golf Club as protesters cited concerns about the impact of the development on both Lagoon Pond to the west and Sengekontacket Pond to the east of the woodlands. The southern woodlands include some 350 acres of oak, pine and beech forest that stretch from Barnes Road to County Road.
The stand-off and ensuing controversy over the southern woodlands was notable not just for its longevity but also for its resemblance to a civil war of sorts within the boundaries of Oak Bluffs. Torn down the middle, residents who endorsed the golf club proposal were as vociferous and as politically engaged as those who were against it.
A group of Oak Bluffs town officials, including two selectmen, backed the golf proposal. The MVC rejected three golf course plans and one massive housing plan for the property.
Mr. Kupersmith sued the commission on multiple fronts, including a high-stakes challenge to the commission's right to review affordable housing projects under Chapter 40B, the state anti-snob zoning statute. The MVC won the case, but Mr. Kupersmith appealed.
The seeds of this political drama were planted in the 1990s when Oak Bluffs selectmen appointed a blue ribbon committee to study the southern woodlands and make recommendations. The committee fell apart and by 1998, Mr. Kupersmith's corporation, then called Preferred Links, bought the the old Webb's Camping Area for $2.5 million.
That same year, the southern woodlands was designated a district of critical planning concern (DCPC). Mr. Kupersmith proceeded to dig into the messy legal work of researching the faulty land titles that plagued the area, buying up undivided interests and taking ownership of some 190 additional acres of the woodlands.
Three separate golf course plans from Mr. Kupersmith - one in 2000 and two others in 2002 - were narrowly rejected in MVC votes. Also in 2002, Oak Bluffs voters gathered in record numbers for a special town meeting to decide whether they should take the woodlands by eminent domain.
The 433-427 vote failed to get the two-thirds needed for passage but quantified the bitter division in town. In October of 2003 the commission rejected a plan for 320 homes on the property.
Also in 2003, the developers began to clear-cut a large swath of woodland fronting Barnes Road and abutting Featherstone Center for the Arts. State environmental officials took notice and stepped in, issuing a cease and desist order and warning Mr. Kupersmith that he could face criminal charges if the cutting continued in the absence of a management plan for the forest, which provides habitat for at least three threatened species.
Now, almost two years later, the land bank is paying for the majority of the once-embattled woodlands by issuing a public bond. The purchase price comes to $98,000 an acre.
"It was a terrible and divisive time, and I hope we never see another project like that," said Ms. Scott. "But it shows the system can work if you let the checks and balances we have work."