Years of Talks Pay Off in 62-Acre Conservation Gift Along Middle Road


A wide swath of rolling farmland and wooded hillside that includes a high ridge perched above the scenic Middle Road in Chilmark and West Tisbury will remain forever wild, thanks to an unusual conservation gift from Virginia Crowell Jones and Everett Noteman Jones to The Nature Conservancy and the Vineyard Conservation Society, the Gazette has learned.

The plan to permanently protect 62 acres owned by Mrs. Jones and her former husband has been 12 years in the making and was completed last week. The gift is outright and no money will change hands. It includes both conservation and agricultural preservation restrictions.

The Jones land abuts the 511-acre Frances Newhall Woods preserve, protected in 1991 through the gift of a large conservation restriction; and it is adjacent to the Brookside Farm on the south side of Middle Road, where a 36-acre conservation/agricultural restriction was gifted in 1998. The northern end of the Jones land directly abuts Waskosim's Rock reservation, owned by the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank.

"It's becoming more and more rare to see people making these straight gifts of generosity - we are obviously tremendously pleased at the outcome and we'd like to say thank you to the Jones family from the entire Island," said VCS executive director Brendan O'Neill this week.

"It was extremely important to me that a part of the Vineyard that I love should remain undeveloped in perpetuity. It's not going to have trophy houses, and it was just really important to me to know that part of the land was protected so that there was no chance for somebody to capitalize on it," said Mrs. Jones, who is a well-known figure in West Tisbury where she lives, and on the Vineyard Haven waterfront, where she worked for many years.

The gift was complicated and involved years of work between the Jones family and the two land trusts.

The Joneses have owned the land since 1968. The property includes 59.3 acres on the Chilmark side and 2.1 aces on the West Tisbury side.

In the end here is how the gift was structured:

The property was first divided into three lots; Mr. and Mrs. Jones each took ownership of a single lot and retained joint ownership in the third lot, which is about 12 acres and fronts the road. The roadfront property is farmed by daughter Katelin Jones and her husband Alan Healy.

In 2002 Mr. Jones donated his land to The Nature Conservancy.

After that transaction Mrs. Jones and the conservancy began to work on a plan to swap portions of their respective lots - the goal was to have Mrs. Jones end up owning the southerly portion of both lots, while the conservancy would own the northerly portion of the two lots. To that end, a new subdivision was created, with the lot line running east-west. The first subdivision lines had run north-south, so the end result was four lots nearly identical in size. Meanwhile, Mrs. Jones took the many steps that were needed to impose a conservation restriction and agricultural restriction on the land that was intended for her sole ownership.

A later phase of the project will involve a cooperative effort between Mr. and Mrs. Jones and the two land trusts to find a way to permanently conserve the front farm parcel.

Today the two ridgetop lots are owned by The Nature Conservancy and the two middle lots are covered by a conservation-agricultural preservation restriction, held by the conservation society and the conservancy.

Mr. O'Neill underscored the import of the gift. "This straight act of philanthropy is just stunning," he said, adding:

"Make no mistake about it, this kind of conscious action on the part of landowners to protect their land is what it will take if we are to succeed in protecting what is special about this place.

"Public and private entities can only get us so far - the landowners will make the difference and my hope is that the Jones case will serve as an example of how to do the right thing. I hope that excitement will be infectious. We need as many Jones families as possible."

Mr. O'Neill also admitted that the gift took many more years to complete than the land owners and conservation leaders expected.

"It's hard to remember the context, especially in this world of $18 million purchases," he said, adding:

"The land itself is not only strategic from an open space planning point of view from the way it connects existing dedicated conservation land - it also is a beautiful property with high ground, over 200 feet in elevation as well as scenic roadside frontage and a rural agricultural protection component, wetlands and woodlands, the whole package."

Ten years ago Mrs. Jones wrote an essay about the impending conservation purchase that was published in the VCS newsletter. The essay is republished on the commentary page of today's Gazette.

The piece of Chilmark hills that my family and I are placing under conservation restriction is one of the treasured spots of my youth," Mrs. Jones wrote in part. "By restricting what can happen to it . . . . We, and future generations, will be able to walk up to a high hill to look out over a long stretch of the south shore and out to sea. We will be able to pick blueberries, watch pheasants and bluebirds, and yes, even look for ticks when we've come back from walking. There will be no red shreds of surveyor's tape, no perk test bomb sites, no pretentious houses with masses of half moon windows and trendy kitchens, no suburban lawns under the beetlebungs.

"This is an idea whose time has come, and it could apply to your family's holdings. Think about it. Think about the glory of a field of wild grasses dotted with butterfly weed, or a patch of gloriously fragrant mayflowers. Think about a woodland habitat where native wildlife will always have a home. Think about protecting a windswept hilltop or a rich and diverse wetland. Think about what you can give back to the Vineyard, and do the right thing."