It was a good week for land trusts and other members of the conservation community on the Vineyard, beginning with an acquisition of coastal farmland on Chappaquiddick by the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank and ending with a decision from the state Supreme Judicial Court that affirms the inherent value of open space.
The purchase by the land bank of twenty-five acres at Tom’s Neck Farm on Chappy represents a series of small victories in itself. The rolling farmland runs down to the edge of Cape Pogue Pond, a pristine saltwater embayment with very little development around it, embracing a number of diverse habitats. The land had been subdivided and could have been the site of four large homes. Instead it will become a public asset, undeveloped and open for recreational use and possibly farming in the future. The owner of the land called it sacred, and that’s not an overstatement — the property had been the site of the first year-round nonnative settlement on Chappaquiddick in the 1700s, and before that it had been a habitation site for Wampanoags. In the early twentieth century the combination of sandy soil and salty breezes proved a hospitable environment for asparagus, among other seaside crops.
The five million-dollar land bank purchase comes against the backdrop of an improving real estate market on the Vineyard, and we can hope and expect to see more land bank purchases in the near future. Even more important, it puts a spotlight on a highly effective movement on tiny Chappaquiddick among landowners to help buy open space in their backyards. Begun some seventeen years ago, the Chappaquiddick Open Space Fund is operated by a committee of the Chappaquiddick Island Association. Since its inception the fund has collected millions of dollars to help preserve hundreds of acres of open space on Chappy. Founded on the simple concept of neighborhood solidarity, the fund is operated by volunteers and unfettered by bureaucracy. And it is making a difference; the fund has collected pledges of more than two million dollars to contribute to the Tom’s Neck Farm purchase.
The Chappy open space fund is a model that could be replicated in every neighborhood on the Vineyard where residents see a value in protecting land around them from further development.
While plans for Tom’s Neck Farm include a mix of recreational and agricultural uses, we have long believed that land conservation is a public good, regardless of whether the land is made available for active use or simply serves to protect a greater ecosystem. That principle won an important victory this week in a decision by the state’s highest court.
In a case involving a small town in the Berkshires, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that assessors in Hawley could not tax some hundred and twenty acres of forestland owned by the New England Forestry Foundation. The amount of money involved was insignificant — under two hundred dollars — but the issue of taxing conservation land loomed large and the case was being closely watched by conservation groups around the state. Part of the case turned on whether conservation land not open to the public for traditional recreational use has a wider public benefit.
In the decision that was handed down just yesterday, the court said it did.
“Historically, the ‘benefit’ provided by land held as open space or in its natural state has been measured by the direct access of people to that land for such purposes as recreation, scenic views or education,” the justices wrote. “However, as the science of conservation has advanced, it has become more apparent that properly preserved and managed conservation land can provide a tangible benefit to a community even if few people enter the land.” The justices went on to describe, for example, the newer thinking within the context of climate change and the effectiveness of forestland in creating more “ecosystem resilience” through absorbing carbon and other pollutants.
We are fortunate to have a mix of conservation organizations on the Vineyard, where more than twenty thousand acres of land has been protected from development over the past forty years, each of which balance demands for public access to land under its stewardship slightly differently.
The events of this week offer a hopeful blueprint for the future.