ORLEANS—Supporters of a public-private effort to prevent further development of Pleasant Bay's Sipson Island encountered some headwinds last month as several selectmen offered criticisms.
“Why spend a million five to get a conservation restriction on something that probably can't be built on that nobody can get to unless they already live on the bay and have a boat?” Selectman Mark Mathison asked at his board's March 20 meeting. Selectman David Currier said the proposal “shows the disconnect that this town has with the problems that we have. Why couldn't we put (money) into housing or anything that gets us access to the water?” Selectman Kevin Galligan wanted to know more about the Sipson Island Trust that would maintain the island.
Last night (April 3), Cape Cod Compact of Conservation Trusts Executive Director Mark Robinson planned to spell out more details on the deal to the board. He has been advising the still-forming Trust and the Friends of Pleasant Bay on the acquisition, for which the latter is raising private funds in collaboration with a private buyer-backer. In an email response to questions from The Chronicle,Robinson addressed a variety of concerns, including accessibility.
Sipson “is the closest island to the main shore and Orleans is still a maritime community,” he wrote. Besides private craft, opportunities to visit would be available through Pleasant Bay Community Boating or commercial launch/tour services.” Noting a town proposal to install kayak racks at a new access point on Lonnie's Pond, Robinson wrote that the Friends of Pleasant Bay is considering teaming up with the town to provide kayak racks at River Road, Portaminicut Road, Quanset Pond, and Route 28 sites with access to the bay.
“Most open space purchases on the Cape nowadays involve a public-private partnership,” Robinson wrote. “The town of Orleans will guarantee public access to 18 acres of the island with its approval of CPA (Community Preservation Act) funds for the purchase. The conservation restriction that the town will hold is the legal vehicle to provide that guarantee of public access in perpetuity.”
A draft of the conservation restriction between the Sipson Island Trust and the town's conservation commission, included in the selectmen's meeting packet, offers further details about the 18 acres. The remaining two lots on the 24-acre parcel would be under conservation restrictions granted, respectively, by the Trust and the private buyer-backer to the Compact.
At the March 20 meeting, Selectmen Chairman Alan McClennen, who also chairs the community preservation committee, said there is a purchase and sales agreement for $5 million to $5.5 million between the island's owner and the private buyer-backer working with the Friends, which is raising the majority of the necessary funds. The draft conservation restriction seeks a commitment of $1.9 million from the town, with $400,000 of that total coming from a state LAND (Local Acquisition for Natural Diversity) grant to the town. The Compact would lend the town $400,000 pending award of the grant; if it is not received, the town's contribution would be $1.5 million.
“The Friends of Pleasant Bay has raised one and a half million,” said McClennen. “They're scheduled to raise another million and a half by the closing in January. Our CR (conservation restriction) doesn't go anywhere until they've raised the money. It's about 3½-to-one private funding to our money.”
“If we've got a million five to spend for property, we should be buying a piece of land on the water we can turn into a landing so people can get to Pleasant Bay and use boats on Pleasant Bay,” Mathison said. “I'm not going to vote to spend one dime on this. I can't believe we're having this conversation when we know the issues about housing.”
“I think we're already working to fund projects that will create a lot of affordable housing in this town,” Selectman Mefford Runyon said. “I think we have money to do both, but the idea that open space purchases competed with affordable housing money in the past, I think it's a myth... the lack of spending on affordable housing in the past was because affordable housing wasn't really believed in.” To him, Runyon said, “what you're buying with the CR is not so much the conservation but (rather) permanent access for the people of the town of Orleans.”
Mathison asked Runyon to recall the latter's previous statements about increasing access to the water. “This isn't (about) access to the water,” Runyon said. “This is where you go when you get on the water. You can get in a kayak at Paw Wah or Lonnies. It's not that long a paddle to get out there.”
The private buyer-backer, who will own a lot and house on the island under a conservation restriction, will have access from the mainland via the private Crowes Landing, reached by a private road off Quanset Road. “Will one of the people on the other side of the Narrows donate parking and water access?” Mathison asked.
In an email, Mon Cochran wrote that he had “no comment as a landowner overlooking the Narrows,” but speaking as president of the Friends of Pleasant Bay, he wrote that the town “has many public landings from which to access the island. These include Route 28, Quanset Pond, Portaminicut Road, Areys Pond, The River, Lonnies Pond, and Meetinghouse Pond. Pleasant Bay will use the island as an educational destination, and provides kayaks for rent for a nominal fee.” In addition, at its April meeting, the Friends “will consider a proposal to join forces with the town to install kayak racks at all town landings.”
Both the conservation commission and the open space committee have endorsed the purchase of the conservation restriction. Cochran stepped down temporarily as chairman of the latter during discussion of the proposal.
The town “is being offered the opportunity to protect 18 acres of undeveloped land forever,” he wrote. “This is one of the four largest undeveloped tracts of land in the town. At $83,000 an acre the town is getting one heck of a bargain.”
In his reply, Robinson wrote that “the town investment ($85,000 per year for 20 years) is less than the minimum of 10 percent that the Community Preservation Committee must spend on open space every year. In general, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to preserve a 24-acre island with more than a mile of sandy shorefront for public enjoyment. A previous generation stepped up in the 1970s to preserve Strong Island in Chatham. Now it's our turn.”
At the March 20 meeting, Galligan thanked McClennen for an “awesome job guiding (Community Preservation Act activities) for years,” but said the proponents themselves needed to make a presentation to the selectmen. “I'm not going to go forward unless I'm certain we're doing the right thing, preserving in perpetuity,” he said. “I have very serious concerns about the start-up of an entity that has no background, where their wherewithal is.”
In his email, Cochran wrote that the board of the Sipson Island Trust, “now in formation,” would include “representatives of each of the four bay town conservation trusts, the executive director of the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, two members of the Orleans Conservation Commission, three marine scientists and a lawyer. A marine construction expert is also on the board, as is a bay fisherman. We are seeking a representative of the Wampanoag Tribe.” A list of founding members provided by Robinson includes notable names such as Strong Island lessee Jay Cashman and former Brewster Town Administrator Charlie Sumner, former executive director of Pleasant Bay Community Boating.
Robinson also sent along an excerpt from the 1891 initial annual report of the Trustees of Public Reservations, which noted a meeting in Orleans “to consider the needs of open spaces for public resort.” The author wrote that the community “is a town of beautiful landscapes and attractive building-sites, and the summer people are beginning to appropriate them... The time is coming when there will be throngs of people here all summer long... The uplands will be an almost continuous village, and the shore everywhere will be in somebody's back yard.”
Proponents of the Sipson Island preservation effort hope that the long-departed writer's conclusion still holds true: “I found here that an average country audience responds readily to a direct presentation of the essential facts and obvious deductions related to this matter.”