A Prize Worth Protecting -November/December 2006
Conservation at Eel Point
by: Elizabeth Stanek
Under an ominous morning sky, Cormac Collier, executive director of the Nantucket Land Council, cruises down Eel Point Road in his Isuzu Trooper. He slows whenever passing new construction, carefully eying bulldozers and the skeletal frames of sprawling homes as though they were predators in the wild.
Red building flags flail in the strong breeze, and Burma Shave-style signs that read “To Save This View–For Me–And You,” herald the ongoing campaign for the permanent conservation of a large chunk of Eel Point.
The Trooper ascends the steep incline of Trotts Hill, and finally visible is a panoramic view of the property in question. Linda Loring’s 270 acres of sandplain grasslands and rolling hills undulate from Madaket Road to Eel Point Road and curve around the head of Long Pond. It is an artist’s haven – the greens of coastal bayberry and huckleberry accented with the purple tint of little bluestem and white tips of Pennsylvania sage. A strip of blue Atlantic borders the horizon.
Yet, the land is also a hungry developer’s dream – a feast of 50 to 60 lots on which to build vacation compounds for the ultra-wealthy. Collier warily does the math, envisioning two houses per lot, which add up to more then 100 homes.
“There’d be two to three cars per house, 300 cars, and a septic system serving over 400 bedrooms. That would result in incredible amounts of pollution entering the groundwater and eventually Madaket Harbor,” he says.
The foreboding clouds echo the threat of development, and Collier pulls the Trooper back onto the dirt road, circumnavigating the tract of land as the vehicle rattles against the bumpy terrain. Momentarily he parks on a little knoll, beside a house that’s back deck overlooks the scrub brush and pond.
It’s the headquarters of the Linda Loring Nature Foundation, created by Loring, who envisions protecting her property while educating the public about the natural world.
“She had an offer of $35 million from another group but chose to go with us,” says Collier, confident that the Land Council will raise the $14 million needed by Jan. 31, 2007, the deadline to purchase the development rights to Loring’s property.
In the 1980s, Congress created conservation restrictions so that landowners can sell the development and/or agricultural rights to their land while continuing to live or maintain a presence there.
“The owner still owns and manages the land but in terms of conservation restrictions, they can’t change the vegetation, add impervious surfaces or ornamental lawns,” Collier says.
Should the Land Council be successful, the restriction will prohibit the future subdivision and construction of residential homes or other structures for commercial use on the property.
“It’s an ideal way to pass down property to generations while still protecting the land,” Collier says.
“The thing that’s cool about restrictions is their perpetuity. They last forever.”
The wind picks up as Collier stands on the Loring Foundation’s back deck, surveying the open space. A breeding pair of osprey perches on a nest in the distance, oblivious to the potential cacophony of hammer on nail.
“We raised a male and female osprey this year,” says Loring, with the same affection as if the birds were her pets. “One year I raised four, but it rained too much recently.”
It is the following morning, a quintessentially clear August day on Nantucket. Sun streams into the room, where aerial photos of the 270 acres of land adorn lemon chiffon yellow walls. Loring has been acquiring the land since 1957, when she purchased her first 168 acres.
“I saw how beautiful the cove was,” she says. “I was like the Kansas farmer, couldn’t stop there, always had to have the next place.”
Nantucket’s salt air has been running through Loring’s veins since 1922 when she was just a year old and her family rented a vacation house on the island. “Grandfather thought we looked so much healthier in two weeks that he decided to buy a place,” she says.
In her pink and white candy-striped button-down shirt and periwinkle pants, Loring, now 86, is as sprightly as the collection of frogs and bird miniatures that cluster on the mantel and side tables. Like her Nantucket summers, Loring’s love of nature was also instilled at a young age.
“When I was growing up, my mother took my brother, playmates and me every other winter Saturday afternoon to the Statler Ballroom in Boston,” she says. There, lectures sponsored by the Massachusetts Audubon Society featured hooded falcons and an array of other birds. “As young as you are, it gets nature in your head.”
Loring gazes out the window at the heathlands, and her mind trails back to the nature club she and her friends established when they were 7 years old. “There were woods where we’d go get salamanders, newts and skunk cabbage. It was very expensive to be a member. It cost 50 cents a year,” she said with a laugh.
Seven decades later, that childhood game became reality on a grand scale when in 1999 she established the Linda Loring Nature Foundation. “It really started with the whole idea of children’s education,” she says. “No one except babies can escape tragedy, but if you have a background in nature, it helps. When times get tough, you can hear a bird and recognize its song.”
Modeled after the Mass Audubon sanctuaries such as Cape Cod’s Wellfleet Sanctuary or Martha’s Vineyard’s Felix Neck, Loring envisions the Foundation as a top-of-the-line environmental education institute. It will provide classes, tours, nature walks and lectures.
“Classrooms will overlook the pond and I hope to have two platforms so children can study the ducks in the water,” says Loring. The sale of the conservation restriction to the Land Council will provide the initial capital, operating funds and a permanent endowment for the foundation.
“Linda Loring has discussed the project with every organization for over 20 years,” says Collier, seated in a Windsor chair in the Nantucket Land Council’s office, tucked away on Ash Lane behind the Jared Coffin House.
He rattles off the list: The Nantucket Conservation Foundation, the Nantucket Islands Land Bank, Mass Audubon, Trustees of Reservations and the Nature Conservancy. “The Land Council was lucky enough to strike a deal with her finally.”
Founded in 1974, the Nantucket Land Council differs from many other island conservation organizations since it doesn’t own or manage land but instead does much of the legal work required to protect open space, accepts gifts for transfer to other organizations, or purchases conservation restrictions on privately-owned property.
“Our main role is to be the advocacy watchdog group on the island,” says Collier.
“We advocate for the protection of natural resources, particularly groundwater and harbors.”
Currently, the Land Council holds 59 conservation restrictions, covering 732 acres on the island. In February 2004, it purchased the development rights to about half of Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm – 106 acres – for $6 million following a two-year fundraising campaign.
“Linda saw our success with the Bartlett project and it inspired her to look at us,” Collier says. “She also saw that her foundation could continue to own the land – not just some outside entity.”
Collier shuffles through a sheaf of papers and uncovers a stack of “Save the date, Save the Land” invitations, ready to be mailed. A September dinner at Galley Beach was just one of the numerous events held to benefit the Loring Campaign to save the 270 acres of open space. Cocktail parties and tennis tournaments dotted summer social calendars, and raised awareness of the cause.
“Now we’re focused on getting people to give,” says Collier. Artists were also invited to visit the property during the summer and a juried exhibition was exhibited at the Brigham Galleries during the Nantucket Arts Festival in October, with proceeds donated to the campaign.
In June 2004, the Land Council, Loring and her foundation signed an agreement giving the Land Council 19 months to raise $14 million. During the option period, Loring agreed not to sell or develop the land.
“We extended the option last January for one year,” says Collier. “We’ve been targeting the Eel Point Road community, past givers to the Land Council and the Bartlett Farm project, and other island individuals,” he said.
The Land Council has received two significant grants from the Nantucket Community Preservation Fund and other donations from philanthropic organizations. As of October, more than $12 million has been raised and the Land Council is accepting pledges through 2010. It’s quite a deal for such a large area of land, which on the open market with no restrictions could very possibly have fetched in the neighborhood of $40 million.
“That’s another advantage of conservation restrictions,” says Collier of the money saved in buying the development rights, rather than the property itself.
Anyone who’s flipped through the island’s real estate advertisements won’t bat an eyelash at a one-bedroom bungalow with views of Stop & Shop priced at $1 million.
It’s a simple matter of supply, demand and desirability, and since 1990, Nantucket has been the most fastest-growing county in Massachusetts.
“Everyone has to have a house on Nantucket,” says Loring, and she doesn’t mean that as a suggestion. “I love Nantucket, but I hate to see the development.”
Yet while the number of houses continues to grow, the open space inevitably shrinks. That’s not good news for the island’s rare and endangered species, of which Nantucket has more than any other Massachusetts county.
“Because of the geological history and the fact that we live on an island that tends to isolate plants and animals, creating rarity, we have a number of species on that list,” says Collier. “Development is also a case. It’s two opposing forces, and development always wins out.”
Loring’s land is very biologically sensitive, made up largely of sandplain grasslands, a globally-threatened ecosystem found almost nowhere else in the world.
“Approximately 90 percent of the world’s sandplain grasslands occur on Nantucket, Tuckernuck and Martha’s Vineyard,” says Collier. The New England blazing star, which blooms a vibrant reddish purple from August to September, is another threatened plant species, along with the broom crowberry, yellow flax, bushy rockrose and Nantucket shadbush.
Habitat destruction has also led to the severe population decline of the northern harrier hawk, and Loring’s expanse of undisturbed land is ideal environment for the bird to nest and raise its young. The property’s wetlands are home to the spotted turtle, which is not yet endangered but becoming increasingly rare.
Conservation restrictions would not only preserve the ecosystem, but are also advantageous to Nantucket’s economy. On an island that’s primary local industry is tourism, it is crucial to maintain peaceful scenic views which appeal to city-dwellers looking to escape the hubbub of the concrete jungles. Taxpayers also benefit because undeveloped land doesn’t require town services such as landfill space, sewers, fire and police services and road repair. “There’s a policeman on every corner and an accident on every corner. They’re just waiting for it to happen,” Loring says with a laugh about this summer’s gridlock.
Loring remembers the quieter streets of Nantucket. “Eel Point Road used to be just a cart road. I moved a house here from Madaket, rats and all, and no one could find me. It was wonderful,” she says.
Under the terms of the conservation restriction worked out with the Land Council, Loring will have life rights to her home, which sits close to the head of Long Pond. The agreement limits further structures to a 10-acre area. “We don’t have a say about what they do in development. We just enforce the restrictions,” says Collier.
Loring’s visions for her nature center go far beyond walking paths and classrooms, to include a petting farm complete with mini donkeys, horses, sheep, ducks and geese.
“So many parents work nowadays, it’s hard to have pets,” she says. Younger children will also delight in riding though the property’s trails in Loring’s “Daisy Train,” a small cart with safety belts that will be pulled by a golf cart. Apropos of the name, it will be painted with daisies, the idea inspired by an anecdote about her mother.
“My mother went to Vassar where she went skating cross-handed with boys on the Hudson River and wore pin curls in her hair. They said she had a bad attitude and wouldn’t give her Phi Beta Kappa, so she couldn’t be a part of the Daisy Chain ceremony. So this is the Daisy Train.”
Perhaps it is this inherited strong will which kept Loring from selling out to developers whose mouths watered at the thought of 270 acres on Nantucket – a habitat for three-car garages, eat-in country kitchens and master bedrooms with cathedral ceilings. She knows whose home the sandplain and sedge heathlands really are, and speaks fondly of her “pets” and one particular deer she first saw and fed on Christmas Day.
“She was so tame, she probably wanted to follow me into my house,” she says. Should the fundraising campaign result in success, the largest privately-owned tract of land on Nantucket will remain open space where species will thrive for generations to come.
Children who visit the nature center may learn to appreciate and respect the wildlife Loring so values, and in turn become more environmentally-conscious adults. That is worth far more than the price-tag of water views.
Elizabeth Stanek is the editorial assistant for Nantucket Today.