Inside the Sconset Trust

Protecting and preserving the charm of Sconset Village

by: Joshua Balling

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

While the Sconset Trust will undoubtedly focus most of its attention over the next year on moving Sankaty Light to safer ground, the conservation organization does still plan to move forward on several other fronts in its effort to protect and preserve the charm of a village that in many ways time seems to have forgotten.

The trust was founded in 1984 following a conversation between Sconseters and members of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation who agreed that the former fishing village and theater colony on the far east end of the island would benefit from its own advocacy group.

According to “Saving Sconset,” a full color booklet it published a number of years ago, the trust is “dedicated to the conservation of the moors, beaches, marshlands and meadows in a wild state; the preservation of buildings and sites of historic significance; the protection of areas of natural beauty; the safeguarding of the public water supply; and the production of education materials about Sconset’s social, economic and natural history.”

Sconset is its own place, set apart from the rest of the island by a seven-mile stretch of road, bounded by moors and bogs to the west and the Atlantic to the east. The village has always had its own character, from its origins as a hardscrabble refuge for hand-line fishermen, to its early 20th century incarnation as a bohemian colony of Broadway singers, dancers and producers, to its current status as one of the island’s last best places for peace and quiet and small-scale charm.

For the past 22 years, the trust has been working to preserve the natural environmental beauty and unique character of the village. The group’s first leader was the late Bob Shetterly, a longtime summer resident who saw the need to create a Sconset-based entity that was in a position to receive gifts of land, cash or securities from people who shared his deep interest in maintaining Sconset’s sublime qualities.

Today, the trust has about 480 members, some who don’t even live in the village.

“There is a core group of the community that has always been supportive of the trust since its inception,” said Erika Mooney, its executive director. “They’ve supported every acquisition, and come to every meeting. But as new generations come to Nantucket on their own, there are a lot of new people in the community, and I don’t know if they necessarily know what we’re doing. We need to make sure they know who we are. There are some people who know the Trust exists, but I’m not sure they know what we do. We need to let everybody know that we’re here, get them excited about our mission, and get them involved.”

First and foremost, the primary mission of the trust is to act as a land trust, and acquiring open space is its top priority.

The trust owns approximately 72 acres in and around Sconset, including a portion of the triangle leading into the village, land on Burnell Street, on Low Beach, off Morey Lane and on Sankaty Road. The acquisition of the lighthouse property will add another seven or eight acres to its holdings.

“Our goal, first and foremost, is to try to preserve open space,” Mooney said. “We’re constantly talking to land owners, letting them know our interest in preserving open space.

“The whole island is concerned about over-development. There is a certain quality of life we all strive to achieve. When you develop every last square inch of property around you, it diminishes your quality of life. Open-space preservation is important not just to Sconset, but to our entire island.”

Yet as open space has become more scarce, particularly in Sconset, and prices have continued to escalate, the trust has started to explore other avenues of preservation.

“It’s became a struggle to bring more land into conservation holdings. In recent years, we’ve faced opportunities where the figures have been significant, in the neighborhood of $1 million per acre. We’re competing against very high figures, and it’s challenging to raise funds,” said Robert Felch, president of the Trust.

“We are looking into other ways to preserve our village,” Mooney said. “We are big advocates of preservation easements. We hold one on Main Street in Sconset that preserves the facade of the house, and prohibits further development of the lot.”

That restriction, on 27 Main Street, is the trust’s first.

“We are very proud of that. We hope it will spur other activity,” Mooney said. “People can be a little afraid of restrictions. Sometimes they don’t understand how they can be crafted to benefit the homeowner as well as the organization holding the easement.”

Donald Lourie agreed to the preservation restriction on the Main Street home he’s owned since 1968. “I hope my neighbors will follow suit,” said Lourie shortly after agreeing to the restriction. “But the first reaction of many people – or at least their lawyers – is to say, ‘don’t restrict.’ They think that it will limit themselves or their heirs from getting top dollar for the property, but that’s not how I feel about it. I think the best use of this house is in its present form.”

In October, the Trust was wrapping up work on its second preservation easement, on the Siasconset Union Chapel.

“It’s been a long time coming. The chapel board has been talking about this for about six years at least. Under the restriction, the chapel will remain virtually unchanged, and diminish any development rights on the property,” Mooney said. “There is a columbarium in there. We want to make sure that it would remain as-is. If something happens further down the road, and they wanted to chop up that property into small lots, they are not going to be able to do that if an easement is in place.”

Preservation easements can go a long way toward preserving the historic character of the village, Mooney said.

“We have a former board member who loves the fact that when he drives onto Main Street, it almost looks the same as it did in the 1920s. One of the great things about Sconset is that the majority of people who love it, want to see it protected,” she said.

Felch agreed, and said the future looks bright for the trust. Several large parcels – land owned by the Coffin estate and the Coast Guard – could be entering the market soon, and the trust is confident it will at least have a seat at the negotiating table.

“We’re positive about the future. We’ve set a goal at the trust of doubling our land holdings in the future. There is a greenbelt from Hoicks Hollow to the western perimeter of the village, about 300 acres, if you include the Coast Guard Loran Station and the Coffin estate properties. We’re optimistic on both of those,” he said.

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