Old Houses, Town Stewards

What next for Tea Lane Farm in Chilmark? A cloud of uncertainty now hangs over the project to restore the farmhouse after voters rejected a spending article for a second time at a special town meeting Monday. What was most troubling was not that voters turned down the request for $550,000, but that they did it so quietly. It was puzzling to see almost no discussion on the town meeting floor about this important project which has been actively on the drawing board for two years.

A decade ago voters solidly backed the plan for the town and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank to buy the historic farm that lies at the corner of Middle Road and Tea Lane. The town paid $250,000 for the farmhouse and the land bank paid $3 million for the 48 acres of farmland that surrounds it. Bobby Silva, the last surviving member of his family to own the property, was given a life estate to occupy the house. After he died, the town would take over the farmhouse and lease it to a tenant farmer. The idea was to preserve an up-Island farm and provide housing for whomever worked the land there.

The Island economy was healthier back then, and perhaps voters who found $250,000 a fair price for a historic landmark did not adequately consider the ongoing costs of upkeep. The notion that the voters were not told that home ownership brings with it additional costs beyond the purchase price is spurious. Whatever else has happened, the fate of the Tea Lane farmhouse has been there for all to discuss and debate.

Two years ago when ownership of the farmhouse reverted to the town following Mr. Silva’s death, it was determined that renovations were needed before the town could lease it out to a farmer. As sometimes happens, the renovation plan proceeded in fits and starts. A $300,000 proposal was brought forward and rejected last year as too limited, and funds were allocated to produce a more complete plan. It was a second, more comprehensive plan that was brought to the special town meeting this week, where it was defeated.

Should towns be in the business of owning old houses? Certainly not without a solid plan for their use and the funding to maintain them. Edgartown learned this the hard way with the Capt. Warren House on North Water street. The town bought that house five years ago with the idea of using it for a library expansion project. Plans for the library subsequently changed several times and the Warren House was erased from the project. Today it is a crumbling eyesore and town leaders are contemplating putting it up for sale, likely at a loss due to the falling real estate market.

But with creative and thoughtful management, town-owned property can be used to advance community objectives, things like historic preservation and affordable housing. One possibility for the Tea Lane property would be to lease it “as-is” to a private party who might be able to restore it under terms and conditions dictated by the town, consistent with the agricultural restrictions on its use.

While the next step is now unclear for Tea Lane Farm, Chilmark has a responsibility to be a good steward of the property and not let it slide into further disrepair. The land bank has done its part in overseeing the farmland, leasing it out for grazing on a short-term basis. Now it is incumbent on town leaders to create some kind of plan for the farmhouse that can win the backing of voters. Clearly the current plan will not fly.