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Nantucket’s Land Bank: Success Defined

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J. Brent Tartamella
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Probably no other organization has had an impact on the island in such a short period of time as the Nantucket Land Bank unless, of course, you include the likes of Nantucket Cottage Hospital or the Nantucket Boys & Girls Club. The original charter for the NLB was enacted in 1983, and since then, based on its mission, the organization has had unparalleled success. According to their 2021 Annual Report, the Nantucket Land Bank owns “3,387 acres with an additional 503.4 acres permanently protected by conservation restrictions held either alone or in conjunction with the Nantucket Land Council.” With feedback from Land Bank Executive Director Jesse Bell and Board Chair Neil Patterson, the intent of this article is to explore where the organization is now and where it might be headed in the future.

The Nantucket Land Bank is a public organization established in 1986 to protect the natural resources and unique character of Nantucket. The Land Bank is funded through monetary and land donations and a 2% surcharge on real estate transactions, and it uses these funds to acquire, preserve, and manage properties for the benefit of the public. Properties include beaches, wetlands, forests, farms, and other natural areas. It also operates several public trails and access points and works to educate the public about the importance of preserving the island’s natural resources.

The Land Bank also plays a role in the local real estate market by acquiring and managing properties that are at risk of development. By doing so, the Land Bank helps to ensure that these properties are preserved in their natural state and available for public use.

“Land to be acquired and held as part of the Land Bank, or interests in which are to be so acquired and held, shall be situated in Nantucket county, and may consist of any of the following types of land and interests therein; (-a-) ocean, harbor and pond frontage in the form of beaches, dunes and adjoining backlands; (-b-) barrier beaches; (-c-) fresh and salt water marshes, estuaries and adjoining uplands; (-d-) heathland and moors; (-e-) land providing access to ocean, harbor and pond frontage and land for bicycle paths; (-f-) land for future public recreational facilities and use; (-g-) recreation land to protect existing and future wellfields and aquifer recharge areas; and (-h-) land used or to be used for agricultural purposes.”

It is important to know the foundation of the NLB as we dive deeper into how the organization is evolving, so I posed three main questions:

The first was how the Nantucket Land Bank can stay true to its mission, vision, values and evolve with the changes of the island as we are a much different island than when the NLB was created.  My overarching question to the NLB was whether they had achieved their goal and, if not, when they would consider their mission to be complete. More specifically, what is the goal percentage of conservation for NLB and the other organizations in the business of island conservation?

The other two questions posed whether the NLB could work in concert with the mission of affordable housing initiatives, followed by the concept of de-development (acquiring properties with existing homes or businesses, taking them out of operation and putting them into conservation). 

While I did not receive the treasure trove of information that I was hoping to share with you all, I gained some beneficial insights from what they shared and elaborated on and what they didn’t want to discuss. 

“As I said before, our mission continues to be conservation, recreation and agriculture for use and enjoyment by the general public. I do not think 60% of the island is under “conservation” but perhaps that percentage includes other open spaces like governmental/airport land, school fields, cemeteries, golf courses, etc. As a community organization we regularly collaborate and work with many non-profits and community members, as well as conservation groups. All of our strategic planning as far as acquisition is concerned is conducted in executive session with the Land Bank Commission.”

As for the percentage of the island that is under conservation, I was politely reminded that the devil is in the details, such as what you count as conservation – i.e., golf courses, school fields, beaches etc. After some rough figures were debated, the number, as it seemed aligned with another organization, was that roughly between 50-60% of the island is under conservation. Part of question one was answered, but the next part was less black and white. There is no stated goal of a percentage of land to have under conservation; it doesn’t exist. If your mission is the conservation of land on a finite land mass, one might assume there might be metrics that line up with such a goal. It appears that while monies are still incoming, the goal of conservation would be never-ending. (I realize that is another blog post – “What do we do when all the land is spoken for, and the money keeps coming in?” Interesting concept, because if the land is all spoken for and money keeps coming in, do we keep participating in de-development until all the homes are bought up, and we are at 100% of conservation? An interesting thought to ponder for next year’s report.)

As for evolution, the model is expanding; they are laser-focused on waterfront acquisition, almost at any cost. While not all of the questions were answered as thoroughly as I had hoped, the organization was eager to share that there are great projects ahead for the Land Bank:

“We have some exciting waterfront projects in the downtown that are currently in planning. The basic idea there is to expand public access along the harbor while also building resiliency by restoring native habitats and enhancing coastal vegetation. We are also moving into agriculture in a big way, with an Agricultural Request for Responses currently being advertised for Eat Fire Spring Farm and another agricultural property soon to be acquired. There are a number of public water access/pier projects which we haven’t had the chance to begin planning yet because we’ve just been too busy, but they are on the list. A bike park is the next recreational project on the horizon.”

While this is all great news, there is preliminary information out and about that says some of this waterfront access will be made possible by removing an iconic island business from operating in its location where it has serviced Nantucket for decades. I suppose this is why all strategies and decisions are made in executive sessions, as pointed out. The question that remains, though, is that we pay into this fund with our real estate transactions – aren’t we entitled to know their strategy and goals? The other question is, does de-development really fit into their mission? Unfortunately, no real information or insight was shared on the concept of de-development. This is important for understanding The Land Bank’s strategy moving forward and how it melds together, especially as a taxpayer-funded organization. It was disappointing to hear that there is no strategic plan nor roadmap charted to guide the future of the most powerful controlling organization on the island. It was said they have been so busy with acquisitions that there has been no time for planning. The Land Bank is a multimillion-dollar organization with no key metrics or strategic plan? Much good remains ahead, but with no planning, we don’t really know where we are going, and we can’t acutely measure successes. Lastly, if we are all not collaboratively working on the ability to create more year-round housing, then we are working against it. Get involved; let us support all the great trails the NLB is forging and, at the same time, hold them accountable for creating an island-wide shared vision with tangible metrics. While we do that, let’s remember to be in balance; too much of a good thing isn’t always good. What will happen when we have 70% to 80% in conservation and have even fewer year-round residents to try and service our ongoing economy?

Finally, for such a hot topic and something deemed essential to the island’s survival, there was no clarity on how the NLB might align itself with the affordable housing mission. The ad to the left was in the paper and on social media the other day, so something is in the works. Still, when pressed about the issue, the NLB expressed their disappointment in relations with the affordable housing proponents. My guess is that both sides feel slighted, and it appears there was a line drawn in the sandbox. This is a great misfortune for the people and visitors of our island, and the Land Bank needs to rise above and start making progress as they are some of the most prominent stakeholders on the island with an automatic source of funding.

With that, we encourage everyone to ask the questions that will allow us to become more informed and to look at the evolution of and forward strategy for one of the most powerful organizations on the island. If you are interested in learning more about the Nantucket Land Bank and its conservation efforts, you can visit its website (www.nantucketlandbank.org) or contact the organization directly for more information. 22 Broad Street, Nantucket, MA 02554; Tel: 508.228.7240

 

Written By

J. Brent Tartamella

A New England native, with roots and a career in hospitality and private club management, Brent moved to Nantucket in 2004.