Land Bank Bids for a Woodlands Preserve

Deal Would Protect 190 Acres; Developer to Build 26 Houses

Gazette Senior Writer

A long, bruising battle over the fate of the southern woodlands in Oak Bluffs took a stunning turn this week when the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank announced that it has signed an agreement to buy 190 acres from developer Corey Kupersmith, including the old Webb's Camping Area.

The purchase price is $18.6 million.

The agreement calls for Mr. Kupersmith to keep ownership of another 90 acres located in the north-central quadrant of the woodlands, where he proposes to build a 26-lot residential cluster subdivision.


The subdivision plan must be approved by the Martha's Vineyard Commission in order for the deal to be complete. The plan is now on a fast track for review as a development of regional impact (DRI); a public hearing is set for April 8.

An informal presentation of the proposal took place at the regular commission meeting last night, before the commission went into executive session to discuss legal strategies around this latest plan.

"Every part of this plan has been done with us and with the community in mind, based on everything we've been through the last five years," Brian Lafferty, formerly a Bolton housing developer who is the chief spokesman for Mr. Kupersmith, said at the commission meeting, where the atmosphere was distinctly cordial.

"We've had lots of back and forth with Brian Lafferty over the last few months and he has a good understanding of what it takes to make a good plan," said commission chairman James Athearn.

"At first glance we have every reason to be optimistic," said MVC executive director Mark London.


The agreement was announced by the land bank late Wednesday afternoon.

"Just the size of this property alone made it a priority," said land bank executive director James Lengyel yesterday. "When you stand on those bluffs over Barnes Road it's an unusual experience to be in what feels to be such an isolated location, but still so close to town," he added.

The 190 acres will be added to an adjacent 45 acres owned by the land bank along County Road, bringing the total to 235 acres.

If completed as planned, the purchase will mark the largest single acquisition in the history of the land bank, both in terms of acreage and dollar amount paid.

It also will mark the end of a bitter, long-running battle between Mr. Kupersmith, the town of Oak Bluffs and the Martha's Vineyard Commission. It is especially unusual in the history of development battles on the Vineyard because it involved a town divided and pitted against itself. A group of Oak Bluffs town officials, including two selectmen, have been closely aligned with Mr. Kupersmith for a number of years. A Connecticut businessman who earned his wealth from a pharmaceutical publishing business, Mr. Kupersmith tried without success for four years to build a private luxury golf course on the woodlands property.

"I am very hopeful that the commission, the land bank and Corey can consummate this deal - it will bring to conclusion one of the most difficult times ever in the town of Oak Bluffs," said Richard Combra, chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen.

Mr. Combra has been open about his close personal friendship with the developer and he said yesterday that Mr. Kupersmith plans to build a home for himself in the southern woodlands and become at least a seasonal resident of the Vineyard.


"He's not leaving - Corey Kupersmith is still going to be a vital part of the Oak Bluffs community," Mr. Combra said. He also said he believes the divisions among townspeople will now begin to fade.

"Some of the people who are so far apart are now coming back to the center. I was an extremist for certain, but in the past six months I think all of us have come back to the center," he said.

The Martha's Vineyard Commission has rejected three golf course plans and one massive housing plan for the property. Mr. Kupersmith is suing the commission on a number of 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 commission has won two rounds in the case, but Mr. Kupersmith has appealed and the case is now pending in front of the state appeals court.

It is unclear whether Mr. Kupersmith will agree to drop the lawsuits if the commission approves the new development plan.

The plan calls for clustering 26 homes on 90 acres around a large area of open space with a manmade pond and a horse field. Access to the subdivision is planned off County Road.

The agreement also calls for a land swap between a landlocked 24-acre piece owned by the town resident homesite committee in the middle of the woodlands, and an equivalent-sized piece owned by Mr. Kupersmith in the south-central portion of the property near the ice arena. The swap would allow the town to create resident homesite lots on the land near the arena. Such a swap will need approval by voters at town meeting.


The southern woodlands include some 350 acres of oak, pine and beech forest that stretch from Barnes Road to County Road. The former campground sits on a glacial headland perched high above the Lagoon Pond and rimmed by a series of steep escarpments running down to Barnes Road.

"Why the glaciers chose this place to create an escarpment is one of those pleasant mysteries of life," Mr. Lengyel said.

Early goals call for allowing hiking, horseback riding and hunting on the property, and also for reviving the old campground by leasing it out to someone who wants to manage and run it as a small business.

"The land bank sensibility is a camping sensibility. Whenever the boy scouts or girl scouts want to camp on our properties we welcome them. The land bank felt it was important to promote public camping on Martha's Vineyard. The idea that people sleep on the ground and get up and hike across Martha's Vineyard - that is quintessentially land bank," Mr. Lengyel said.

The land bank will pay for the property by issuing a public bond. The purchase agreement was approved this week by the land bank commission and also the Oak Bluffs town advisory board; land bank advisory boards in the five other Vineyard towns must also approve the bond.

Created by an act of the state legislature in 1984, the land bank buys public conservation land using money from a two-per cent transfer fee on most real estate transactions.

"The land bank has always been eager to conserve certain areas, and one is upper Lagoon Pond. It's a fascinating area," Mr. Lengyel said.


The purchase price comes to $98,000 an acre, slightly under the current land bank average of $101,000 an acre.

If the sale is completed, two ancient ways on the property - The Old Back Road to Oak Bluffs and Old Holmes Hole Road - will be preserved in their current state. A third ancient way, Chase Road, will be partially preserved and partially lost because of the housing development. Mr. Lengyel said the plan calls for redirecting Chase Road around the subdivision. Mr. Lengyel said the purchase will add a large chunk to the land bank's cross-town trail in Oak Bluffs.

A History of Discord

From a town blue ribbon committee that fell apart, to heated debates on the town meeting floor over proposed eminent domain takings, to a pitched battle last year over possible town withdrawal from the MVC - over the years, disagreements have sprouted around the southern woodlands like mushrooms in a summer rain.

The land bank first expressed interest in buying Webb's Camping Area when it came onto the market in 1988.

Ten years later Preferred Links, a corporation set up by Mr. Kupersmith for the purpose of building a luxury golf course, bought the 82-acre campground for $2.5 million. At the time, much of the land in the southern woodlands was plagued by faulty title. Over the next few years Mr. Kupersmith did the legal work, bought up undivided interests and took ownership of some 190 additional acres.

Also in 1998 the southern woodlands was designated a district of critical planning concern (DCPC).

Three separate golf course plans from Mr. Kupersmith - one in 2000 and two others in 2002 - were narrowly rejected in MVC votes. In October of 2003 the commission rejected a plan for 320 homes on the property.

The developers clashed often with the MVC. At one point Mr. Kupersmith and Mr. Lafferty filed complaints with the state ethics commission against five members of the commission, but all the members were cleared of conflict of interest. Later Mr. Lafferty publicly labeled one member of the commission a bigot, claiming he had a videotape documenting racist remarks made during a public hearing. The claim proved groundless.


Late last year the developers took a fresh hostile tack and began to clear-cut a large swath of woodland fronting Barnes Road and abutting Featherstone Center for the Arts. The clear-cutting drew the attention of state environmental officials, who issued a cease and desist order and warned 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.

Expressions of Relief

Announcement of the agreement with the land bank this week drew expressions of relief.

"This would at first glance appear to be a compromise. It might not be everyone's first choice, but it could end up being a balance of everyone's objectives," Mr. London said.

"It's my opinion that this agreement between the land bank and Corey will satisfy the needs of almost everyone who has been involved in this issue over the last four or five years. I'm pleased, and I am most grateful to James Lengyel, Corey and everyone who participated in bringing this thing together," Mr. Combra said.

Selectman Todd Rebello, who is being challenged in his bid for re-election next month, seized the political moment and took credit for his own role in the deal, but Mr. Lengyel said yesterday that in fact all the negotiations were with Mr. Lafferty.

"It's been Brian and me," he said.

Mr. Lengyel said the land bank has stayed out of the fray, but he did take a brief bow for the role that his own agency may now play.

"When I look at conflicts such as this I do think the Vineyard is privileged to have an institution like the land bank that can step up and get involved. I know there are communities up and down the East Coast that would love to have a land bank," he said.