By Betsy Sherman Walker, Newport This Week
With its legacy of wise and effective governance, no one needs to warn the board and staff of the Aquidneck Land Trust about counting their chickens. But with a good dose of cautious optimism, it seems fair to say those chicks are about to hatch.
ALT’s most recent acquisition effort – the 23-acre Spruce Acres Tree Farm in Middletown – took a giant step forward on Monday, Feb. 27, when the Portsmouth Town Council approved a $300,000 grant request that would go into the campaign coffers. Pending Portsmouth’s approval, the Town of Middletown had agreed to match the amount.
In the course of an evening, ALT’s Campaign to Save Spruce Acres Farm edged $600,000 closer to its goal to raise the $2 million asking price for the 23 acres that straddle the Middletown-Portsmouth line.
The request was unanimously approved by the seven Portsmouth council members, to a standing ovation. Social media comments the next day were congratulatory: “Yay, very happy about this, happy, happy!”; “An important purchase – congratulations!”; “Congratulations to all involved – and great leadership in Portsmouth!”
According to ALT Communications and Marketing Manager Gretchen Markert, the go-ahead from Portsmouth puts the organization at 75 percent of its goal to bring the 50-year-old tree farm under its protective umbrella.
“We have until March 31,” she added, “and yes, we do think we will get there.”
Rescuing prime, undeveloped land from the jaws of R-30 development is something the trust has been doing for more than 25 years. Google “Spruce Acres for Sale” and the fourth hit – from landandfarm.com, a national website providing information to developers, describes the property. “Total [acreage] includes two single-family houses,” it reads, “along with multiple outbuildings, barns, storage sheds, etc. Property has been a working tree farm in the past. Eighteen acres in the rear are available for development (R-30 zoning) and are available separately.”
While there is a bold notice at the top of the listing that says, “This Property is Off-Market,” it is nonetheless a what-if moment. One man’s buildable lot is another man’s saved acre.
ALT’s plans to acquire Spruce Acres were made public last August. At the time Executive Director Chuck Allott said that if successful, the trust’s headquarters would be relocated from Aquidneck Avenue to the site, which straddles the town line on East Main Road across from Mitchell’s Lane.
“This is an important asset for the residents of Aquidneck Island,” Allott recently told Newport This Week. “It is centrally located, and will open up more than 22 acres of free, publicly accessible nature trails and other recreational and educational facilities.” Particularly appealing – not a game-changer but always a plus – is that Spruce Acres “abuts other conserved properties and will enlarge the Center Island Greenway corridor of habitat and farmland.”
Since it was established in 1990 as the Aquidneck Island Land Trust, its mission has been “to preserve and steward Aquidneck Island’s open spaces for the lasting benefit of the community while connecting people with the lands that define the island’s natural character.” Against the backdrop of land and easement acquisitions, the laying out of more than 11 miles of nature trails, and a variety of fundraising goals met or exceeded, ALT has lived up to its mission, and served as a model for other land conservancy organizations.
In 2009, ALT became the first land trust in the state to earn national accredited status from the Land Trust Accreditation Commission. In 2015, it reached its 2,500 conserved acre mark; as of February 2017, that number has grown to 2552.7 acres of land across 76 properties.
Future plans at Spruce Acres, Markert says, “include utilizing an existing building on the property for our office space, and to create community gardens, farm workshops, micro farm plots, and land stewardship workshops for the public.”
With an operating budget of just over $836,000, ALT oversees its acquired acreage – now just over 21 percent of the island. It is guided by more than 20 trustees, has an advisory board of more than 20 – experts in law, agriculture, finance, real estate, and environmental protection – and a full-time staff. In the long run, the Land Trust exists to serve the people who live and work – and even visit – the island, and to ensure the highest quality of life possible.
“We are thrilled with the support we have been given for this effort,” Allott said. “We have received contributions from donors, foundations, and municipalities. It is wonderful,” he added, “to work toward the preservation of this property, knowing the great value it will bring to Aquidneck Island residents.”
For more information on the Aquidneck Land Trust, and find out how to support its efforts, go to ailt.org. To sign the petition to save Spruce Acres, go to change.org.