Chatham Says Goodbye To Land Bank

By: Tim Wood

The Old Comers Woodland Conservation Area was the first purchase Chatham made under the Cape Cod Land Bank in 1999. TIM WOOD PHOTO

After 148 Acres And $19 Million

CHATHAM – Tax bills sent to property owners in May will be the last to include a 3 percent surcharge for the Cape Cod Land Bank, which ended Jan. 1 after 20 years.

During those two decades, the town used more than $19 million in Land Bank funds to preserve 148 acres of open space. The latest and last purchase through the Land Bank, 4.17 acres of waterfront land on Goose Pond, was approved at last May's annual town meeting.

Chatham and Provincetown were the only Cape towns that continued to collect the Land Bank property tax surcharge. Other Cape towns folded the Land Bank into a modified Community Preservation Act, which also targets funds collected through a property tax surcharge to preservation of open space.

“I think it's really worked out great,” said Jack Farrell, chairman of the town's open space committee, the successor to the Land Bank and open space committee.

Land Banks were in place on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket for a decade before a Cape-wide Land Bank gained traction in the mid-1990s. With the Cape in the midst of a building boom, there was widespread concern over the disappearance of open space and the threat to the region's environment and way of life. The first Land Bank bill, which imposed a 1 percent property tax surcharge, was approved by the legislature over Governor Paul Celluci's veto in 1997. Strong opposition from the real estate industry led to its defeat in a Cape-wide referendum in January 1998.

Supporters retooled the legislation and a new Land Bank bill was approved later that year. The revised measure gave Cape towns the option to impose a property tax surcharge of up to 3 percent as well as the ability to opt out of the Land Bank. The state threw in matching funds of $15 million and imposed a 20-year sunset. The Land Bank went into effect the following year.

Led by Richard Batchelder and Coleman Yeaw, Chatham approved the Land Bank in both referendums (Harwich turned it down in the first vote but approved it on the second round). They were named to the first Land Bank and open space committee, along with John Sweeney, Jane Harris, William Schweizer, Rella Bryer and Mary Olmsted.

“It was a great group,” Harris recalled recently. Yeaw, Batchelder, Schweizer and Olmsted, especially, “knew the town, knew the land, and had a very strong vision for the town.”

The group developed criteria for evaluating open space purchases, which included protecting water resources, controlling urban sprawl, creating space for passive recreation, and protecting the town's character. The purchase came even before any revenue from the Land Bank surcharge had been collected.

In 1999 a group of South Chatham residents began efforts to save land overlooking Forest Beach from development. The property was owned by MCI-WorldCom and had been the transmission site for the Marconi Wireless Station; it included upland and acres of marsh and beachfront. A deal was eventually reached for the town to buy the Forest Beach land as well as the Marconi campus in Chatham Port, a total of more than 90 acres, but because both contained buildings, Land Bank funds couldn't be put toward the $900,000 purchase. Under the law, money raised through the Land Bank surcharge can only be used to acquire open space.

There was an additional 11.38 acres of MCI land off Old Comers Road, with frontage on Lover's Lake, that was not part of the original deal. A Virginia conservation organization had a conservation option on the land, but officials were able to work out an arrangement for the town to acquire the property, assessed at $1.5 million, for $500,000. The money would come from future Land Bank revenue.

“It was really a great kick off for the Land Bank, and it kind of set a challenge for us in the next years, because this was such an amazing deal to have pulled off within a few months of formation of the Land Bank,” said Sweeney.

Two more smaller purchases came in the next year. In terms of acreage, the Old Comers Road land was the third largest parcel purchased with Land Bank money over the past 20 years. An inventory of town land done by the committee showed the lack of large, undeveloped parcels, Sweeney said. “In a way it was a little disappointing after having gotten the MCI-WorldCom deal to see how small the rest of the parcels were that were available,” he said. Other towns purchased large parcels early on, tying up future Land Bank revenue. When the opportunity came in 2004 to fold the Land Bank into a modified Community Preservation Act, most Cape towns went in that direction, said Farrell. Chatham, however, retained both the Land Bank and CPA, which began another source of funds for open space purchases.

Over the 20 years, the size of parcels purchased with Land Bank funds ranged from 0.38 acres to 30 acres. Some were highly visible, such as the 1.82-acre Captain George Harding Conservation Area on Main Street in the center of West Chatham, the 1.36-acre Cockle Cove Creek Headwaters land at 2175 Main St., and the McCoy Tree Farm, 11 acres along well-traveled Old Queen Anne Road. Others were out of the way, in neighborhoods or down wooded paths, such as the 9.47-acre Sylvan Gardens property and the 8.74-acre Twine Field off Morton Road.

On some deals, the Land Bank collaborated with the Chatham Conservation Trust, a private group that has preserved more than 800 acres of open space, marsh and beachfront. In other instances, private funds have been combined with Land Bank money, and in a few instances grants have contributed toward land purchases. The $1.4 million purchase price of the 7.31-acre Edson property at 1107 Main St., for instance, was covered by Land Bank, CPA and Foundation funds.

Working with the Foundation has allowed the Land Bank to “get the best bang for our bucks,” Farrell said. The Foundation first collaborated with the Land Bank in 2000 on the purchase of 3.5 acres of land off Main Street in West Chatham between the road and the wastewater treatment plant. In several cases the Foundation stepped forward and purchased land, holding it until Land Bank money could be appropriated through town meeting. That's what happened in 2006 with the 8.4-acre Valley Farm property off Barn Hill Road, which borders Foundation land.

“We had confidence the town would fund it,” recalled Foundation trustee David Doherty, the group's representative on the open space committee.

“The partnership has really helped keep us active and functioning when we didn't have cash flow,” Farrell said. The two groups also worked together on acquisition of the 1.36-acre Cockle Cove Creek Headwaters land, where a closed restaurant once was. The Foundation bought the land and tore down the building, with the Land Bank then acquiring the open space.

In 2010, the Land Bank contributed $500,000 toward the purchase of the 38-acre Fratus property straddling the Harwich-Chatham town line. The land, 18.71 acres of which are in Chatham, protects well fields in both communities. Each town also received $500,000 state grants toward the $2 million purchase.

Probably the most challenging purchase, Farrell said, was also the Land Bank's largest: the 30.21 T.W. Nickerson property off Mill Hill Road in 2007. Even though it includes buildings and a working stump dump, the $2.2 million purchase was “just too good to pass up,” he said, since the land abuts other town-owned open space as well as water supply wells. Some legal gymnastics were required to apply Land Bank money to the acquisition, but a deal was worked out whereby the town leased the land so the operation could continue.

“That took a lot of time,” recalled Harris. The original vision was that when the lease runs out in 2029, the buildings will be removed and the land will revert to open space, probably meadow, and be akin to Harwich's Thompson's Field, she said.

Voters have supported all but one Land Bank purchase—a single lot off Barn Hill Road that Farrell said was going to be part of the Valley Farm parcel—which shows residents' dedication to preservation, he said.

“I think they made the statement a long time ago, philosophically, that this is the way we want to go; we want to protect our town,” he said.

The fact that Chatham didn't follow other Cape towns and switch to the modified CPA is “good evidence of how supportive the town was,” Harris said. “I think they've done a great job.”

“Chatham is so fortunate that we had both,” added Sweeney.

“It's worked out for us,” said Ronald Bergstrom, who was a selectmen when the Land Bank began. Many of the parcels are accessible to the public, with walking trails maintained by the town's conservation department, which also has a land stewardship program in which volunteers monitor land and identify property management issues. The Sylvan Gardens property has its own non-profit that takes care of the land and its extensive trails and ornamental plantings.

The final Land Bank purchase was last May, when the town bought 4.17 acres around Goose Pond for $1.2 million. As with other purchases, the Land Bank and open space committee worked with the family that owns the land to protect it in perpetuity, and to carve out several properties that have cottages on them that the family wished to retain. The Foundation is working to obtain conservation restrictions on those lots to further restrict future development around the pond, the town's largest.

There is currently $1,824,212 in the town's Land Bank account, according to Finance Director Alix Heilala. When the Goose Pond deal closes, expected soon, the money will draw down most of the fund, with the remaining money covering principal and interest payments on other purchases through 2022. Any money left over could be used to maintain property purchased through the Land Bank or could be folded into the CPA with a vote of town meeting, she said.

The new open space committee will continue looking at potential land purchases, working with land owners interested in selling or donating property to the town Farrell said. It will draw on the annual funds available through the CPA. At least 10 percent of the estimated $1 million annual CPA revenue has to be dedicated to open space, and the community preservation committee can recommend more for specific projects. Farrell, however, doesn't anticipate any large purchases coming up.

“There's just not that much left,” he said.

Beginning in the fall, the Land Bank will be replaced by a 1 percent property tax surcharge that will fund the town's other post-employment benefits obligation.

See a video of some of the properties acquired through the Land Bank at www.capecodchronicle.com.

Email Tim Wood at twood@capecodchronicle.com


Land Bank Stats

Total Land Bank purchases – 23

Total acres acquired – 148.57

Total cost - $19,389,052

Total Land Bank funds expended - $13,755,979

Other funds (grants, CPC, private money) - $5,633,073

Largest parcel purchased – 30.21 acres, Mill Hill Road (T.W. Nickerson), 2007

Smallest parcel purchased – 0.38 acres, South Chatham, 2001

For a full list of Land Bank purchases, see www.capecodchronicle.com