Landowners React to Blind Trust Deals

By JAMES KINSELLA

Two parties who learned that they unknowingly sold property to the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank have expressed concern about how the land bank cloaked its identity in the transactions.

Mia Lewis, one of the former owners of 1.9 acres of barrier beach on Tisbury Great Pond, and Judith Lane, who owned six acres off Ice House Pond, this week questioned the strategy used by the land bank, a state-chartered agency funded by property transfer taxes.

The agency purchased the properties, both in West Tisbury, through attorneys acting as straw agents representing blind trusts. The land bank cloaked its identity in the belief that the owners would refuse to sell the parcels to the land bank, which would open the parcels to the public.

Ms. Lewis co-owned the barrier beach property with her father, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, her sister, Eliza Lewis, and her brother, David C. Lewis.

"We're deciding as a family what to do about it," Ms. Lewis said yesterday. "We will definitely make a comment in the future." She declined to speak further on the issue.

Ms. Lane said Wednesday she found the land bank's concealment of its identity very disturbing.

"I don't think that's the proper way for them to conduct business," she said.

Land bank commission chairman Edith W. Potter said yesterday she had heard no criticism of the agency's strategy from the public. "People in the community are pleased about the purchases," Mrs. Potter said.

In early 2003, the land bank bought 11.1 acres on the northern end of Ice House Pond. The agency paid Ms. Lane $1.25 million for her property, and paid Nancy Schwentker and Mary-Robin Ravitch $750,000 for the 5.1-acre Schwentker-Ravitch property.

This past July, the land bank paid $320,000 to the Lewises for four beach lots on the Tisbury Great Pond.

The land bank did not reveal its purchase of the parcels until Nov. 19, when it issued a press release. James Lengyel, executive director of the land bank, said the agency had held off publicizing the Ice House Pond purchases to forestall queering the Tisbury Great Pond purchase.

In a letter sent earlier this week to the Gazette, Ms. Lane listed several concerns.

"First, as a Massachusetts-chartered organization, I question both the ethics and legality of the land bank negotiating a sales agreement for two years. It would seem that a state-chartered organization would be required to operate in an open and transparent manner," she wrote.

In particular, she said, the land bank is required to report its land acquisitions annually to the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.

Second, she said, she already had discussed the sale of the land with the land bank, in which she expressed her desire to limit public access.

Third, she said the land bank proposal to open the land to public recreation, which would include a potential 12-space parking area, violates covenants in the sales agreement to limit public access.

Fourth, she said she was concerned that the land bank had announced public access for the pond before an ecologically sensitive management plan had been developed.

In an interview Wednesday, Ms. Lane said the blind trust exercise would have been unnecessary if the land bank had met with her and agreed to covenants that would have protected the pond from public over-use.

"They really missed the boat on this one," Ms. Lane said.

Executive session minutes released last month by the land bank revealed that land bank board members discussed on more than one occasion the propriety of using a blind trust and a straw agent to pursue the purchases.

Mrs. Potter said that she herself was a little leery about the strategy, but added that the purchases accomplished something for the general public. She said she didn't know whether the land bank would continue the practice in the future.

She also said that the land bank had yet to draft a formal management plan for public use of the parcel, and that any such plan was at least two years away. "It's a very long process," Mrs. Potter said.

As for the requirement to report acquisitions to the state, Mr. Lengyel said the land bank would report the transactions for this year, during which it formally accepted the properties.

Richard Johnson, executive director of the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation, said he had mixed feelings about the land bank's strategy.

"I think like everybody else, I have real questions about a public agency acting in that manner," Mr. Johnson said. "On the other hand, they have very smart, very capable people over there. We can't be in the position of backseat driving with the land bank."

Asked whether the purchases would have an effect on future sales of land for conservation, Mr. Johnson said, "People don't always distinguish clearly between groups. It potentially could have an impact on us.

"We have to be absolutely straightforward with everybody," he said, speaking of potential donors. "They're our lifeblood."

Brendan O'Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, said he didn't expect the land bank's actions would have any effect on its conservation efforts, as the land bank, unlike the society, is a public entity.

Mrs. Potter said she hadn't received public feedback that the blind trust deals would affect future land bank purchases.

Ice House Pond, also known as Old House Pond, is a fresh water glacial kettle pond situated deep in the woods off Lambert's Cove Road. The land bank purchase, which includes a small sandy beach, will open up public access to the pond for the first time.

The beach lots on the Tisbury Great Pond will become an Atlantic Ocean adjunct to the land bank's Sepiessa Reservation.