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Aquidneck Land Trust reaches goal to protect Spruce Acres farm

By Matt Sheley | Staff writer, The Newport Daily News

MIDDLETOWN — Jun 8, 2017 Efforts to save the Spruce Acres tree farm on the Middletown-Portsmouth line from development appear to have been successful.

On Thursday afternoon, Aquidneck Land Trust Executive Director Chuck Allott told The Daily News the nonprofit conservation group had secured $2.3 million to protect the 23-acre parcel.

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Aquidneck Land Trust Executive Director Chuck Allott said Thursday the nonprofit conservation group has secured $2.3 million to protect the 23-acre Spruce Acres on East Main Road in Portsmouth.

A $300,000 grant from the van Beuren Charitable Foundation based in Newport put the fundraising effort over the top; that money came through Wednesday, Allott said. The land trust had until June 30 to come up with all the funding.

Allott said the closing, when the land changes hands and becomes land trust property, is expected in mid-July.

“For whatever reason, this project resonated with so many people,” Allott said. “Maybe it was because of the history of the property and the fact people bought Christmas trees there, maybe it’s because development is beginning to pop again or the trail aspect of the project. This was easily the project the most individuals contributed to in our history. Whether it was $10 here or $10 there or the Gewirz family, who pledged $300,000, the response has been amazing.”

Landowner John Deveau said he couldn’t be happier with the news, which was delivered by Allott late Wednesday.

“I’m thrilled,” Deveau said. “It’s been so many years and such a really long, difficult road to get the property to the land trust, which is who we wanted to have it for years.”

The sale comes at the right time, Deveau said. Even as his family was working with the land trust, he said, developers were calling and making inquiries.

“It’s been picking up the last couple years and within the last year, no doubt,” Deveau said. “We could have gotten much more if we went somewhere else, but do we really need another cookie-cutter housing development? It was the right decision to preserve the land and all those calls didn’t sway our decision one bit.”

The campaign to save the tree farm kicked off last summer, when the land trust announced the property was under serious development pressure and at risk of being turned into houses.

A sign on the property at 1286 East Main Road urged people and businesses to contribute to help the land trust save the site. And contribute they did, Allott said.

On Wednesday, land trust staff determined there were more than 425 individual donations to the effort, a new record.

The land trust, founded in 1990, has saved more than 2,500 acres across the island from development.

For now, Allott said he and the rest of the land trust are focused on making sure the closing goes smoothly.

From there, he said, a new environmentally sensitive parking lot must be installed and work done on the trails and signs before the public will be allowed on the property.

He wasn’t able to say Thursday when the property would be open to the public. A community celebration is in the works to thank everyone involved and invite people to the property; the date and details are still being finalized, Allott said.

The land trust plans to relocate its headquarters to the historic home on the property and hold educational programs in some of the outbuildings, all of which need upgrades.

Allott said the excitement around the successful fundraising campaign is palpable.

“We’re elated, absolutely elated,” Allott said. “This was a huge effort and all the credit should go to the staff. They’re the ones who made it happen and I don’t think anyone can thank them enough.”

Besides saving the site and making it available to the public, Allott said another one of the selling points was the planned use of “green” infrastructure with all the upcoming projects.

“This is an excellent opportunity for us to show how a parking lot should be built in the future using ‘green’ methods or how to handle rainwater, things like that,” Allott said. “It’s going to be a good thing today and for future generations.”

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Another Save for Aquidneck Land Trust

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.

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Land trust, town partner to purchase land for park

By Joe Baker | The Newport Daily News Jan 11, 2016

The town of Portsmouth and the Aquidneck Land Trust have purchased a 1.5-acre piece of land along the shore that faces the Mount Hope Bridge and plan to turn it into a public park.

The town, which contributed $600,000 of the $900,000 purchase price, will own the property and the land trust will hold a conservation easement that will prohibit any future development. The property actually is about 4.9 acres, but all but 1.5 acres is underwater, Town Council President Keith E. Hamilton said in announcing the agreement during the council’s meeting Monday night.

“It’s a great deal and a beautiful piece of property,” Hamilton said. “A piece of Portsmouth history has been preserved.”

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The town of Portsmouth and the Aquidneck Island Land Trust joined forces to purchase this 1.5-acre plot of land that faces the Mount Hope Bridge. The town plans to turn the land into a park.
Aerial photo by Craig Issod

Located on a small peninsula sticking out into Mount Hope Bay, the property was used as the primary landing for the ferry between Portsmouth and Bristol from the late 1600s until 1929, when the Mount Hope Bridge opened.

Negotiations with primary landowner Joe Britto took more than a year, Hamilton said. The town is going to seek grants to help repair the sea wall, he said. The property will remain fenced off until those repairs are completed, he said.

“Portsmouth is lacking in waterfront public-access open space,” land trust Executive Director Chuck Allott said in a prepared statement. “The land trust is thrilled to work with the town to bring a waterfront park to Portsmouth with such high scenic and recreational conservation values.”

Hamilton said officials envision the site being used for passive recreation, with benches so people can watch the sunset. It also will be a popular fishing spot, said Hamilton, who said he is a fisherman himself. The Fire Department has expressed interest in putting a floating dock in at the shoreline where firefighters can bring people who are rescued in the nearby bay, Hamilton said.

Officials said they hope the park would be open to the public by the summer of 2017. A public park planning process funded through a private foundation grant will take place during the next year to determine the best design and recreational use for the park, according to the land trust.

At one time, owners of the property actively were seeking permission to build condominiums there, Councilman Kevin Aguiar said, but never got the necessary approvals.

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Happy 25th

By Matt Sheley | The Newport Daily News Jan 15, 2015

What started in 1990 as a volunteer effort to raise awareness about the importance of open space on Aquidneck Island has preserved nearly 2,500 acres from development in the past quarter-century.

The Aquidneck Land Trust will celebrate its 25th anniversary — and announce a number of happenings associated with the milestone — at its annual meeting on Thursday, Feb. 5, at 6 p.m. at the Atlantic Beach Club, 53 Purgatory Road, Middletown.

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Aquidneck Land Trust Executive Director Chuck Allott said he is proud of the organization’s accomplishments during its first 25 years, including the preservation of nearly 2,500 acres of land, as indicated by the graphics to the left.
Dave Hansen | Staff photographer

Reflecting on the organization’s history recently, Executive Director Chuck Allott and Kathy Irving, the land trust’s first president, said there were no guarantees in the beginning.

“If you look back at where we started, I knew it would work, but I had no inkling we’d be so successful. I don’t think anyone did,” said Allott, who had volunteered with the group since the beginning before taking over as interim executive director in December 2012 and then as the full-time director in April 2013.

“It’s taken a lot of hard work and involvement from so many people, each who’s made their own contribution, which means more than words can express,” he said. “Saying all that, by no means are we done.”

In 1990, the development pressures on the island were mounting, Allott and Irving said. Open spaces were being gobbled up at an astounding rate, they said, with farms and scenic vistas across the area transformed into housing subdivisions and shopping centers.

On the heels of a successful islandwide comprehensive plan process, through which residents and business people had an opportunity to shape the area’s future, the time seemed right for the introduction of a local land trust, they said.

With similar organizations in place in Block Island and Little Compton, there was some awareness about what land trusts do, but not much, they said.

“It’s seems strange to think about today, but we really had to educate the entire community about what a land trust was and what it meant,” Irving said. “‘No, we’re not here to take away your property or your development opportunities.’ The thing for me with this was I didn’t want kids from Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth to grow up and see these major farms disappear like we saw as we were growing up.”

The all-volunteer organization spent the first three years focused on an educational campaign, growing membership and raising awareness of the land trust. Things changed for the group with its first deal in 1993 — conserving 2.4 acres on Bellevue Avenue in Newport owned by the Slocum family.

“I remember getting a phone call that the Slocums were interested in preserving the land on Bellevue,” Irving said. “I couldn’t believe it. It was the most exciting thing, to know all the hard work we had put into this was paying off. I think that helped give us a foothold with every other easement we’ve made since.”

Since then, the land trust has protected 72 properties from retail and commercial development, for a total of 2,448 acres around the island.

The seminal projects include conserving the Newport National Golf Club property on the Middletown-Portsmouth line in 2000, the Escobar family farm in Portsmouth in 2005 and 400-plus acres around the Lawton Valley reservoir complex in Portsmouth in 2006.

In addition to support from everyday residents and property owners, Allott and Irving said the assistance of the Prince Charitable Trusts, the van Beuren Charitable Foundation and the Alletta Morris McBean Charitable Trust has been invaluable in raising money necessary to preserve properties.

“For me, the one that really put us on the map was the Newport National property,” Irving said. “There was a big project to bring condos or houses there and it was real. Can you imagine if that happened, what it would be like there today? That was the first step in the Sakonnet Greenway,” a wildlife trail linking tracts in Portsmouth and Middletown.

Over the next few weeks, Allott said, the land trust is expecting to complete a deal for another key piece in that puzzle — the 70-acre St. Mary’s property between East Main Road and St. Mary’s Pond in Portsmouth. The agreement would push the land trust over the 2,500-acre benchmark in its 25th year.

“I think what’s great about the land trust is we’ve impacted a true cross-section of the community over the years, so everyone has their own idea of the most important,” added Jessica Pohl, development director for the land trust. “Sweet Berry Farm, Escobar’s, Green Valley — there’s such a variety of properties, and if you sat 10 different people down in a room, they’d all have a different answer. For me, it’s Green Valley because of the memories I have playing golf there growing up.”

Asked when he felt the land trust had “made it,” Allott said as a nonprofit, that day never really comes, but he pointed to the establishment of the Merritt Neighborhood Fund in 1999 as a significant development. Named after the late Peter M. Merritt, who took over as land trust president from Irving, the fund has awarded about $84,000 to 44 different groups for projects including community gardens, park revitalization, purchase and repair of playground equipment and other efforts.

Although many people focus on the natural beauty and importance of the protected properties as wildlife habitats, Allott and Irving said land conservation has evolved into much more today.

These days, they said, saving open space is as much about improving stormwater runoff and cleaning up drinking water as it is about saving iconic views.

“There’s so much more awareness about the importance of protecting these properties from a drinking water standpoint and a stormwater standpoint,” Allott said. “It’s something people think about so much more than even five or 10 years ago. Thankfully, we have good quality drinking water, but it might not always be that way. Look at what’s going on out west. It’s something that affects everybody.”

Incoming board Chairman Jameson Chace — a professor at Salve Regina University in Newport — agreed, saying without the land trust, the area would be dramatically different today.

“I’m a big believer in environmental conservation and when I started out seven years ago with the land trust, I couldn’t say enough about the work,” Chace said. “Land trusts are one of the best ways to preserve what’s here, and the work has not only made a difference because we’re saving the island, but these properties make perfect outdoor classrooms for our students to learn.”

For Chace, the work by the land trust has helped keep the island looking like “Anywhere, USA.”

“If you think about it, during the development boom of the ’90s, if all these properties on East Main and West Main (roads) were developed into homes, it would look like a New Jersey strip subdivision,” Chace said. “Some of the more iconic vistas would be gone and we’d lose the character that helps make this place what it is and unique.”