Some people, if they shared an award with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. might be pleased to think they’d made it, big-time. Not Brendan O’Neill. He was gratified to think he’d made it, small-time.
Mr. Kennedy, of course, is famous both for his family name and for his record as a crusading and aggressive environmental lawyer. He plays on a national stage.
No surprise, perhaps, that he should receive a Nicholas A. Robinson award, recognizing his significant contribution to environmental law as a former student of Pace University’s pioneering program in the field.
Mr. O’Neill, though, made a different choice when he finished his studies at Pace in 1985.
“Upon graduation,” he recalled this week, “my choices were to work for the Environmental Protection Agency, under Ronald Reagan’s administration, or work for the Vineyard Conservation Society.”
He chose the latter. For several reasons.
First, he spoke to a couple of other young attorneys “who were doing hazardous waste litigation [and] they were all so demoralized they strongly counseled in favor of the Vineyard,” he said.
The second and more important reason for his decision might be summed up in that old environmental adage, think global, act local.
“The macro-level environment stage is so complex and the issues are so big . . . it can be overwhelming at times, at least to me,” he said.
“By temperament I’m more suited to acting locally. That’s the reason I was so impressed to be mentioned in the same breath as these environmental advocates who can operate on that grand stage, like Mr. Kennedy.”
Of course, there is a downside to the decision to focus on local activism, as he recognizes, including limited budgets and limited recognition (notwithstanding the Robinson award).
The third reason he ended up here was luck.
He had been here once with his family some time in the 1970s. Then his Williams College roommate, Dana Gaines of Edgartown, reintroduced him to the place. During law school he did some taxi driving on the Island in summer.
The city kid who grew up in the suburbs of New York and went to school in the Bronx found himself attracted to the natural beauty of the Island, its sense of place and rural character.
Mr. O’Neill thought it was the sort of place “where one could gauge the impact one was making.”
And over the past 23-odd years, Mr. O’Neill and the Vineyard Conservation Society have made numerous impacts large and small.
There were legal battles, including the one to stop Edward Redstone’s supermarket at Nobnocket, which went on for six years until 1991, when the proposal was finally defeated.
“And there was the multi-year campaign, a decade back, against a proliferation of four different proposals to build private golf courses,” he recalled. “The result was not too bad, where several were acquired for conservation purposes.”
Those were the times when the legal defense role of VCS — the main distinction between the society and the Island’s other conservation organizations — was, as Mr. O’Neill puts it, on the front burner. These days it is less so, although litigation continues.
“For example, we’re 11 years into the effort to protect the globally rare moors up there on Moshup Trail in Aquinnah against encroachment,” he said.
“That started in 1996 when, with state money, grant money and local fundraising, we were able to buy some of the last big contiguous areas of coastal heathland habitat. About 40 acres were acquired, almost $3 million spent.
“The litigation now, involving a series of complex lawsuits, is about defending those gains. Specifically, some individuals are interested in building an access road through the dedicated conservation land. That’s something we’re resisting,” he said.
The matter has moved at a glacial pace and he said is still probably a year from resolution.
Meanwhile there is much to do.
That includes building relationships with people in a position to donate land or conservation restrictions, and shepherding them through the various legal obstacles.
“Land protection, particularly protection of family farms, has been a theme at VCS throughout our history, either by putting together the financing packages to save a farm — like Nip’n’Tuck Farm or the Whiting field or Jim Athearn’s Morning Glory Farm — these are ways we participate in protecting farms’ soils and keeping people on the land. That’s where we hold some [legal] interests,” he said.
“But we try not to get into the land trust business.”
He said other organizations, including Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, The Trustees of Reservations and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank are better set up for that. Mostly, VCS serves as “a traffic cop” matching landholders with the other land trusts, or even Island towns.
Sadly, the number of people gifting land into conservation has slowed in recent years, although happily, the rate at which land is disappearing under new houses also has declined (an average of one new house was being built per day in the 1990s; now it is a little more than half that).
Mr. O’Neill hopes the number of gifts and conservation restrictions may increase again, as a result of changes made in August to federal tax rules.
“A problem had emerged in recent years, which contributed to the decline [in gifts],” he said.
Land had gotten so expensive that the gift of a CR had tremendous value, outstripping the benefit donor could receive as an income tax deduction.
“The rules were that one could only deduct 30 per cent of their adjusted gross income per year for five years. That meant someone making a sizeable gift on Martha’s Vineyard, who otherwise had an average income, could never use up the entire amount of the gift.
“Now one can deduct up to 50 per cent and carry that over for 15 years, so at least there’s a chance that the donor will be able to benefit from the gift,” he said.
Another part of the VCS advocacy role is in influencing land use regulation. It played a part in formulating zoning policies on the Island, and just as the organization works with other groups to protect land, it works with the towns and Martha’s Vineyard Commission to regulate what may be done with land, and increasingly, water resources on the Island.
Related to that function is the role of education.
Last weekend, Mr. O’Neill led about 150 people on a walking tour around Crow Hollow Farm in West Tisbury.
Standing on the shore of Muddy Cove, an arm of the Tisbury Great Pond, he told the group about the threat to Island ponds from nitrogen pollution.
Nitrogen from septic tanks and lawn fertilizers goes into the groundwater, he explained, moving an average of about a foot a day and ending up in streams and ponds, where it overenriches the water, leading to algal blooms.
The jewel green lawns that some Vineyard residents so desire might look pretty, he told his audience, “but they kill the ponds.”
It’s a matter of getting the message across to people, he told the Gazette later, about the inappropriateness of bringing non-native grasses here, of using chemical fertilizers.
Thus VCS began a water quality initiative this past summer, with the help of an $18,000 grant — the first such grant — from the Massachusetts Environmental Trust, matched by VCS funds as well as funds from the Edey Foundation.
He said it’s about educating people, but also about influencing policymakers on the Island toward tighter regulation of fertilizers and runoff and septic systems.
One hope is to change what people perceive as a “Vineyard lawn”, about getting them to consider alternatives to chemical fertilizers. In the case of regulators, the hope is for more stringent controls on land use, particularly around ponds.
“By regulation, I use the term broadly to mean the kinds of recommendations which could emerge for the [Martha’s Vineyard] Commission’s Island Plan for example,” Mr. O’Neill said.
“They’ve already, in the case of Edgartown Great Pond, designated a regulatory special overlay districts, DCPCs, where the regulations include things like setbacks from the water that are way in excess of what state law would require, like a 300-foot setback instead of 100.”
Other initiatives include a successful effort to have the Steamship Authority begin recycling.
It is apparent that the VCS mission is ever-expanding. And that the original purpose of the group’s founders — saving land from development — remains important, but less so.
“For many years our focus was almost exclusively on protecting the land; now we find ourselves now shifting to the protection of resources other than land,” Mr. O’Neill said.
“Now it is about conservation in the broadest sense, of land, materials, energy, community values.”