BOSTON - Citing concerns about potential impacts to water quality and protected species, the Massachusetts Secretary of Environmental Affairs last month denied the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank management plan for its proposed Ice House Pond Preserve.
The move will keep the 11-acre West Tisbury property on Old House Pond, also called Ice House Pond, closed to the public for at least another year while the land bank collects more data to incorporate into its plan.
This marks the first time in the land bank's 19-year history that it has failed to win approval from the state for a property management plan. Land bank enabling legislation requires that the state secretary of environmental affairs review all management plans.
"The main question is: Will public access be to the detriment of the natural resources? And the problem was we wouldn't know the answer to that with the data provided in the plan," Christine Edwards, land and forest policy coordinator in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, said from her office yesterday. "You can't know whether something is changing if you don't know where it started in the first place."
Ms. Edwards compiles comments on land bank management plans from a standing review committee of several different state environmental agencies. She then reports back to Secretary of Environmental Affairs Ellen Roy Herzfelder, who determines whether to approve the plans.
Ms. Edwards said the Old House Pond management plan did not have enough baseline data about the current condition of the pond and its surrounding ecosystem.
Old House Pond is a freshwater glacial kettle pond hidden in the woods off Lambert's Cove Road in West Tisbury. State environmental officials described the coastal kettle pond shore habitat as one of the most rare and fragile in the region.
"Land bank plans have always been high quality," Ms. Edwards said. "But in this case, they didn't provide enough information for us to feel comfortable about opening the shore of the pond in particular to the public. The secretary did not deny public access forever. She just asked for more data."
The management plan, as approved by the land bank commission and submitted to Secretary Herzfelder in April, allowed for a six-vehicle trailhead and no more than 20 people on the property at any one time.
The plan granted public access for hiking, swimming and fishing, but prohibited boating and hunting. It also called for a property attendant and nighttime caretaker, as well as a swimming perch to avoid shoreline trampling.
According to internal correspondence provided by the office of environmental affairs, Tim Simmons, a restoration ecologist with the state's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, said the land bank plan inadequately documented the natural diversity that likely existed at the site.
"Coastal plain pond shores are among the most unique natural communities in Massachusetts and are represented by fewer than six known occurrences on Martha's Vineyard," Mr. Simmons wrote to Secretary Herzfelder. "These communities are also among the most fragile communities in the region and are easily degraded."
Mr. Simmons noted that some of the protected plant and animal species that often inhabit coastal pond shores - such as dragonflies and damselflies - require specialists to identify them. He requested that the land bank conduct such surveys before opening the habitat to potentially damaging activities.
The land bank's plans for the pondfront property have come under intense scrutiny since it announced last November that it had purchased the land two years earlier through a straw agent representing a blind trust.
Enabling legislation for the land bank requires that it file an annual report with the secretary of environmental affairs listing all acquisitions of property during that year. The land bank did not report its Old House Pond purchase to Secretary Herzfelder until 2004, once it officially transferred ownership from the blind trust to the public conservation agency.
The land bank cloaked its identity in the real estate transaction - as well as in a later purchase of four beach lots off Tisbury Great Pond - under the belief that the owners would have refused to sell the parcels to the land bank.
Island residents have historically enjoyed casual use of Old House Pond, but the land bank purchase will for the first time open formal public access.
The management plan released this spring sparked sharp debate among land bank representatives and received a strong reaction at a public hearing in April, with much of the harshest opposition coming from other pondfront owners.
A number of land bank officials have characterized abutters' criticism of the management plan as self-serving and obstructionist.
"No matter how dramatic or intellectual or heartfelt, the resistance to this plan is a clear case of NIMBY [Not in my back yard]," longtime land bank commissioner Pamela Goff of Chilmark wrote in a letter to Secretary Herzfelder last month. "Please take the ‘environmental' concerns with a grain of salt and do not allow their demand for further study to delay the careful management of this property."
Land bank officials also claimed that the neighbors' objections to the plan affected the secretary's decision to require additional study.
At least four people with connections to current or former pondfront owners submitted comments to the state office of environmental affairs about the management plan this spring.
Ms. Edwards said this marked the first time to her knowledge that the office of environmental affairs received public comments about a land bank management plan. She said public comment is normally handled on the local level at land bank public hearings, though she did not see comments made directly to the state as inappropriate.
"I don't think the process we used or the recommendations we received from state agencies were unduly influenced by public comments," Ms. Edwards said yesterday. "But like the land bank, we are a public agency. So we need to take those comments into consideration."
Two of the letters written to the state came from the previous owners of the six-acre property that the land bank secretly purchased in January 2003 - Judith Lane and Mark Mattson, both of whom have experience as freshwater pond scientists.
Mr. Mattson works for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection in the division of watershed management.
He also wrote a lengthy letter to the land bank in April about its draft management plan. Both times he prefaced his comments by saying he was writing as a private citizen and not a state employee.
"While the land bank staff have responded to many of the simple errors that I pointed out in my comment letter on the draft, the report is still inadequate, contains new errors and is still missing documentation and details of how the pond will be monitored," Mr. Mattson wrote to Secretary Herzfelder. "The land bank staff apparently are not trained in limnology and may need further assistance at this point in order to develop an adequate plan."
Mr. Mattson's technical comments seem to have gained some traction on the state level.
"We agree with Mr. Mattson, a colleague of ours from DEP whom we work with closely on lake and pond issues," Anne Monnelly, an aquatic ecologist with the Department of Conservation Resources wrote in a letter to the office of environmental affairs. "Ideally these studies would be conducted prior to opening up the pond to public access."
Secretary Herzfelder said she would not approve the Old House Pond management plan until another full year of water quality and protected species monitoring were conducted and incorporated. Other requests included additional studies of fish populations and the identification of a monitoring schedule that would describe how the pond is to be monitored in the future.
Secretary Herzfelder said in her June 20 letter to the land bank that she would be happy to review a revised management plan next spring. If the revised plan is approved, the Old House Pond property could be open to the public next summer at the earliest.
Land bank ecologist Julie Schaeffer, the chief author of the management plan, said she was disappointed with the state's ruling but optimistic that the revised plan next year will meet the secretary's requests. Ms. Schaeffer said the land bank intended to do additional water quality monitoring this year regardless, so she will simply continue her efforts as planned.
"I thought it was a good plan, and a lot of work went into it," Ms. Schaeffer said. "But I think it will work out in the long run. I'm very positive about it."