Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith came back onto the radar screen this week in a fresh collision with the town of Oak Bluffs and the Martha's Vineyard Commission - this time over a tree-cutting project that may or may not be in violation of state and local laws.
Saying that they wished to err on the safe side, the Oak Bluffs selectmen decided last week to refer the tree-cutting project to the Martha's Vineyard Commission as a development of regional impact (DRI).
"We decided that we could not sit idly by and circumvent a process - so now we will see what the commission can do," said Oak Bluffs selectman and board chairman Richard Combra.
The Dukes County Commission quickly followed suit, voting 4-1 with two abstentions on Wednesday night this week to refer the project to the commission.
"We need to do this so the MVC can officially look at the situation and determine what course of action is appropriate," said Paul Strauss, a county commissioner who is an appointed member to the commission.
"We need to clean this up so the ball can continue to roll," said Roger Wey, a county commissioner who is also an Oak Bluffs selectman.
Both referrals were made as discretionary referrals, a special process that is allowed under commission rules for DRIs. A public hearing is required to determine whether the project qualifies as a DRI, and the hearing is now set for Dec. 18 at 7:30 p.m., when the commission will take up this new piece of business in the storied southern woodlands section of Oak Bluffs.
Mr. Kupersmith owns 270 acres in the southern woodlands, and he has been battling the commission for the last three years over development plans for the property. The commission has rejected three luxury golf course plans and one massive housing project for the property, and Mr. Kupersmith is now suing the commission on a variety of fronts. Earlier this year he helped to mount a heated political campaign to have the town withdraw from the MVC - but the campaign failed and the people of Oak Bluffs voted to stay in the commission.
After the housing project was denied Brian Lafferty, an associate of Mr. Kupersmith, announced that they would launch a massive tree-cutting project on the property, which sits off Barnes Road and includes the site of the old Webb's Family Camping Area.
At first the cutting appeared to involve only thinning, but then about two weeks ago a large swath of land that abuts Featherstone Farm was clear-cut.
Reportedly Mr. Lafferty is planning a project to harvest lumber from the property on a large scale, but it is unclear how much of this plan is real and how much is provocative talk.
In mid-November Mr. Lafferty wrote to the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife about the plan to harvest cord wood, which he said was for Mr. Kupersmith's personal use, and also to convert the property to "agricultural use."
The letter prompted a tough and detailed response from Tom French, the assistant director of Fisheries and Wildlife.
Mr. French noted that the Kupersmith property is listed as priority habitat for three state-listed species: the imperial moth, the pine barrens zale moth and the spiny oakworm moth. The imperial moth is a threatened species.
"I would like to make it clear that Mr. Kupersmith's entire property is a ‘sensitive area' in the sense that it is priority habitat for three state-listed species, and any alteration of the habitat on this property can be subject to the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act," Mr. French wrote to Mr. Lafferty.
Mr. French urged Mr. Lafferty to submit a more detailed plan for forestry and agriculture on the property.
It is understood that environmental officials from the Natural Heritage Program plan to visit Mr. Kupersmith's property Monday morning to inspect the cutting project.
Yesterday Mr. Combra said the tree-cutting had gone far enough.
"There's been a great deal of discussion and we all have our own opinions but obviously a large open area of tree stumps is unsightly," he said, adding: "We felt that with the activities going on it would be irresponsible not to at least ask the Martha's Vineyard Commission to take a look at it and determine whether it falls under their guidelines."
The entire southern woodlands is a district of critical planning concern (DCPC), a special overlay planning district permitted under the commission's legislation and accompanied by special regulations. DCPC regulations are adopted as part of the town zoning bylaws, and so enforcement falls to the town. Tree cutting is permitted in the southern woodlands, but the rules restrict how much cutting can take place.
"My understanding just from conversation is that they have hired a professional forester and that they will submit a plan to the state, and that they will begin to harvest lumber," Mr. Combra said. He also said:
"I am confident in our own zoning official - Richard Mavro has conferred with town counsel and has found no violation of any regulations - at least so far. There is the bigger question of how many trees they can cut and under whose direction and whose authority - that is still to be decided and I'm not about to decide whether they do or do not have jurisdiction," he added.
Mr. Combra, who speaks openly about his close personal friendship with Mr. Kupersmith, said frankly that the latest collision may well be a way for Mr. Kupersmith to vent his anger at the town and the commission.
"I think Corey would still very much like to build a golf course on his property, but I also think he's hurt and angry," Mr. Combra said.
"I've come to know Corey over five years - and I'm not suggesting that my position is in any way slanted because of a friendship. But he's the father of four children, he's a pretty nice guy and I enjoy his company. The public perception of him is a mean, angry person, but maybe anyone would be an angry person if he had a vision and was denied an opportunity to pursue it."
"Now we're down to spitting in each other's face and that's the way it's going to be until some of these lawsuits get decided."