ORLEANS — The finance committee voted 5-3 last week to recommend against the town's purchase of a conservation restriction that would guarantee public access to Sipson Island in Pleasant Bay.
“It's too difficult for most residents to access unless they have a boat in Pleasant Bay or a kayak,” member Peter Monger said. “The cost of $1.5 million could be better spent elsewhere given the parlous state of Orleans' finances.” The loss of tax revenue after the conservation restriction is in place was also a factor, he said.
“I'd hate to see this boil down to lost property tax revenues when we're talking about one of the iconic parts of the Pleasant Bay watershed and an opportunity to conserve it,” member J. Suzanne Moore said. “I just think the issue is larger than that.”
Member Bob Renn, who like Moore and member Elaine Baird supports the purchase, said that property taxes from Sipson, now owned by the Dietrich family, are a little over $55,000 annually. That amount, he said, would be reduced by $47,000 if the land is purchased with conservation restrictions.
Balance that, he suggested, against the town helping to preserve the island and provide public access with its $1.5 million, plus “what I view as a very significant grant from the Sipson Island Trust and a Massachusetts land grant to a total of $3.4 million, effectively 70 percent of the total acquisition cost.” The Friends of Pleasant Bay is about halfway to its goal of raising $3 million in private funds by the projected sale date of January 2020.
“I'm still looking at the total financing picture and I'm still troubled,” member Frank Lucibella said. “So far, the only money on the table is a little over a million in private grants. Our million and a half is next up. There's still two million unspoken for. I'd be a lot more comfortable if this had the financing more in place. For that reason, I feel I can't support it.”
Renn spun out three possible scenarios. If the article passes, he said, “we get the conservation restriction at $1.5 million, and there is no additional burden on the tax rate (the money would come from community preservation funds, which are supplied by a tax on real estate transactions). Twenty-two acres of Sipson Island would be placed in a conservation trust in perpetuity for research, education, and public access. Two acres would be in private ownership.”
If Article 15 is rejected, he said, the Friends or the Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts could proceed with the purchase of the island in January and “the conservation restriction would be in jeopardy because the town would have no control or impact...” It's quite possible, he said, that the property could be converted into a different tax category if construed as a forest or rural property. That could lead to a tax abatement request “so the tax revenues the town currently enjoys could be greatly reduced even if nothing happens.” Even if the Sipson Island Trust or Compact are unable to proceed with the purchase, Renn said, the current owners could ask for such an abatement.
The town would be required to oversee, but not provide, maintenance of the island under a conservation restriction. That would be the responsibility of the Sipson Island Trust, in perpetuity.
“What guarantee do we have from the (trust) that they will be around in perpetuity, let alone maintain it in perpetuity?” Monger asked. Although Renn had said earlier that liability matters related to the property would rest with the Sipson Island Trust and not the town, Monger said, “Unless the trust has extraordinarily deep pockets, the town would be sued. You always go after the deep pockets.”
The committee's liaison from the board of selectmen reminded the committee that the town owns or controls 30 percent of the land in Orleans. “Potentially, we have a lot of liability,” Alan McClennen said, adding that state law limits a municipality's liability to $100,000 for any one incident. “If you say liability is terrible, why do we own any land at all?” he asked.
At the Orleans Citizens Forum meeting at the senior center earlier that afternoon, McClennen recalled that town meeting had voted to spend community preservation money to buy 65 acres of Tern Island in Nauset Estuary. “Most of the time, you need a boat to get there,” he said.
Also at the forum, Mark Robinson, executive director of the Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts for several decades, said he had never come across an idea as exciting as saving the last island in Pleasant Bay for the public's enjoyment.
“Chatham stepped to the fore with help from Orleans and other public and private fundraising to protect Strong Island almost 50 years ago,” he said. “This is our generation's chance to save an island in Pleasant Bay.”