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.
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.”