Adapted from remarks made at the 43rd annual meeting of the board and membership of the Vineyard Conservation Society on June 24:
Visitors to Martha’s Vineyard often observe that much of the Island appears to be wonderfully open and undeveloped. It is an accurate observation, but it is also an illusion of sorts. While a century of land conservation work has resulted in permanent protection of about one third of the Island’s 60,000 acres, another third is undeveloped land with no conservation protection of any kind. Until a conservation entity buys it or a landowner voluntarily cedes development rights, it is at risk of being developed.
There is general agreement that much of the Island’s remaining unprotected open land should be conserved if we wish to keep our water bodies, prime farm soils, scenic vistas, buffers around the Great Ponds and core wildlife habitat areas intact.
The dilemma is that not all the land that needs to be protected can be saved in time. The rate at which land is being developed is far outpacing the rate at which it is being conserved. In a build-out scenario under existing zoning, this could translate into several thousand new houses, a doubling of the year-round population, a spike in the summer population, and the necessity of providing the roads, sewers, municipal buildings and other infrastructure required to support a larger community.
What can be done? At least three promising directions are available to us: Firstly, all new development needs to be evaluated via a tougher and more thoughtful public approval process. Towns can take fuller advantage of the tools already at their disposal through the powers of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission by adopting new special overlay districts (DCPCs). This is a trend we are already seeing.
Secondly, town leaders and citizenry should get behind the commission’s Island Plan process and aggressively support implementation of its recommendations. Finally, the word needs to go out about the importance of voluntary action on the part of landowners to forego some or all of their development rights. They can do this by donating land or a restriction on land. A conservation restriction (CR) allows a landowner to voluntarily restrict development of private land, and donating a CR to a town or conservation entity generates a federal income tax deduction.
But there has been a decline in CR donations in recent years as the price of Vineyard real estate has escalated. Landowners thinking about CRs often found themselves unable to use up the full tax deduction generated by their gift in the six-year time frame required under Internal Revenue Service rules.
Now, a provision in a recently signed federal bill makes it much easier for a landowner to take full advantage of a CR deduction. Taxpayers may now deduct the value of the gift against up to 50 per cent of their adjusted gross income per year for up to 15 years. For qualifying farmers, the gift is deductible up to 100 per cent of their adjusted gross income. The words of Vineyard Conservation Society founder and pioneering conservationist Richard Pough of Chilmark are prescient. He wrote more than 40 years ago: “If the natural beauty of Martha’s Vineyard is to be preserved, it will be the result of the combined action of the Vineyard landowners.”
More than five thousand acres of private land have been protected by landowners in recent decades. That’s almost a quarter of the inventory of conservation land on the Island. Now is the time to repeat that feat.
Brendan O’Neill is executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society.