Looking Back at the Land Bank

by: Marianne R. Stanton

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger, Jim Powers, Chris Tran

Phil Bartlett was stunned. He was looking at plans for a subdivision on the Miacomet property once owned by his neighbor Ralph Marble that would carve it up into a subdivision for 500 houses.

Those development plans drove home the importance of the then two-year-old Nantucket Islands Land Bank. Bartlett was one of its first five commissioners, and would sit on the commission for 30 years.

Phil Bartlett of Bartlett’s Farm was a Land Bank commissioner for 30 years.

“I saw that, and that’s when I said that if you want to control what happens with the land, you’ve got to own it,” said Bartlett, now 85.

Bill Klein arrived on Nantucket in the dead of winter in 1974. Over the next few years, he witnessed the slow and steady growth on the island, ever since it adopted zoning a few years earlier.

That growth was changing the character of the island and threatening the large, empty tracts of land that everyone took for granted.

He could see that zoning wasn’t the answer to protecting Nantucket’s wild, open spaces.

Klein was Nantucket’s first planning director. The job gave him a viewpoint from which he could see the problems with land development.

“Zoning doesn’t do anything but smear development over the land. If one is serious about preserving open space, then you have to consider the just-compensation clause in the U.S. Constitution, and pay people for their land,” Klein said.

Like Bartlett, Klein believed that the only way to curb development and save open space was to buy it, and the idea of a land bank began to formulate in his mind. It is hard to remember now, but it was a radical idea for its time. There were plenty of hurdles between the concept and its implementation.

Klein’s idea grew out of conversations that began at the dinner table.

“I’d sit at my parents’ table and listen to my uncle, John Klein, who was the county executive for what was then the fastest-growing county in New York State – Suffolk County, Long Island,” he said. “He would talk about the challenges they were facing and how zoning just doesn’t work.”

Before coming to the island, Klein was the director of community development for a local-government research corporation in State College, Pa. His work over five years there involved helping townships create land-management systems and protect natural assets and community character in the face of rapid development. Some of those townships were using a 1 percent real-estate transfer fee to benefit their communities.

That experience, coupled with those dinner-table conversations with his uncle, seeded the ground in his mind for the concept of a land bank for Nantucket.

Over Columbus Day weekend in 1982, Klein convened experts in land management from across New England at a three-day conference in the Coffin School entitled “Nantucket in the Year 2002.”

Under the auspices of the Nantucket Planning & Economic Development Commission, they looked at the threats and opportunities facing Nantucket and developed a 24-page booklet entitled “Goals and Objectives for Balanced Growth.” It was printed in its entirety in The Inquirer and Mirror. The idea for a land bank, funded by a real-estate transfer fee, occupied just one page of the booklet.

The next step was putting an article on the Town Meeting warrant the following spring. Klein was systematic and relentless in reaching out personally to all the decision-makers on the island, talking to them one-onone.

“I spent much of my time consensus-building across the island, talking to builders and real-estate agents,” he said. “Twenty-five percent of the people on-island were builders and there were over 300 people with real-estate licenses. If we didn’t have their support, it wasn’t going to happen.”

At the April 1983 Town Meeting, Nantucket voters passed Article 23 overwhelmingly, 446-1.

The language read, “To see if the town would vote to instruct its representative in the General Court to file a bill in the Legislature, in the form of a home rule petition to establish a Nantucket County Land Bank.”

Then the hard work of getting the home-rule petition turned into law on Beacon Hill began. The stars aligned in many ways for Nantucket. The big advantage was that the governor was on the island’s side.

“Mike and Kitty Dukakis had gotten married on Nantucket, and he was a very strong supporter of the bill,” Klein said. “He had a very good staff that did nothing but shepherd bills through the State House.”

There were several powerful legislators in the State House who also had strong personal ties to Nantucket. One was Biff McLean, a state senator from Fairhaven, who had a home on Washington Street. He was the consummate old-school mover and shaker on Beacon Hill.

None of it would have happened without the vision and political skills of Klein, who was a master at consensus-building. He spent a lot of time on the phone. He roamed the hallways of the State House, occasionally witnessing moments of high political drama.

“One day, I was sitting up in the galleries, and one of the representatives suddenly jumped up and went on a rant about how Nantucket was just for rich people and he said he wasn’t going to vote for the bill – which would have killed it – and stormed out. I panicked. We were so close to getting it passed. I ran, literally ran, down to the governor’s office,” Klein remembered.

“It turned out that this guy had seen a show the night before on TV – ‘Chronicle’ I think – that portrayed Nantucket as an enclave for rich people. And he said he wasn’t going to vote for it based on that,” Klein said.

One of Dukakis’ aides intervened, tracked down the legislator and persuaded him to change his mind. The bill got enough votes to pass and Dukakis signed it into law Dec. 30, 1983.

Klein had put together a system of raising money from real-estate transfers and using it to buy open space. It was called the Nantucket Islands Land Bank. It was the first of its kind in the nation.

Once the enabling legislation was passed, Klein took on the task of running the newly-created Land Bank for the first two years, in addition to his job as planning director for the Town of Nantucket. It was an exciting time.

“Imagine what it’s like for a planning director to have both regulatory power and cash. It was kind of intoxicating,” he said. The Land Bank was less than two years old when, in March 1985, it purchased the Miacomet property whose development plans had stunned Phil Bartlett. The property was almost 160 acres and cost $4.5 million. A group called 3M Realty Trust, comprised of islanders Bob Mooney, Jack McElderry and Glenn Menard, had bought the property for $1 million just a few years earlier from Ralph Marble, and were now looking to cash in.

It was the first large purchase by the Land Bank. Over the next

36 years, the organization would spend over $350 million to preserve and protect more than 3,300 acres of land for open space and recreation, including two public golf courses – Miacomet and Sconset – playgrounds, playing fields, environmentally-sensitive ecosystems, beaches and waterfront properties.

Erna Blair’s 25-acre Lily Pond property was one of Klein’s favorite early purchases. Located between North Liberty Street and West Chester Street, it created a serene in-town park.

The most dramatic purchase in those early days involved a collaboration between the Land Bank and the Nantucket Conservation Foundation.

Anne Sanford, who lived in a little stone house off Madaket Road, had assured the Foundation that the 300 acres of property along Madaket Road she owned would be gifted to the Foundation when she died. But sloppy language in Sanford’s will led two judges to rule otherwise. The property went to her heirs.

They in turn offered to sell it to the Foundation for the discounted price of $4.4 million. There was only one problem: The Foundation didn’t have the money.

Jim Lentowski, executive director of the Foundation at the time, approached Klein about partnering to buy the property and save it from development. Surveyors were already mapping out house lots on the land.

The two organizations worked out a purchase and sale agreement with the heirs. Each group would pay $2.2 million over four years, starting with the Foundation making the first payment of $1.1 million in year one. If any group defaulted or missed a deadline, the deal was off.

“We almost lost the property,” Lentowski said. “It was really touch-and-go.”

“Jim and Arthur Reade should take credit for making that happen,” Klein said. “I was very proud to have been a party to that, and so delighted that the land was not turned into a subdivision.”

Over the next three decades, nearly all the large land purchases for conservation on the island were achieved through partnerships between the Land Bank and either the Conservation Foundation, Sconset Trust or Nantucket Land Council.

Klein stayed on as NP&EDC director for 17 years before heading to Harvard in 1991 on a Loeb Fellowship for Advanced Environmental Studies. From there he headed to Chicago, where he became director of the American Planning Association.

He retired in 2013. In 2018 Klein was named to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Planners. He and his wife, the author Blue Balliett, now split their time between Nantucket and Chicago.

Today there are half a dozen land banks in the nation, but only two in Massachusetts: The Nantucket Islands Land Bank and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank.

The Land Bank has kept properties, large and small, in the hands of the public for 38 years. It generates, on average, $20 million a year from a 2 percent transfer fee on most real-estate sales. Almost half of that goes toward covering the Land Bank’s operating expenses and paying down debt.

It has borrowed over the years to purchase large tracts of land and to expand the Miacomet Golf Course from nine holes to 18. It is now considered one of the finest public golf courses in the nation.

There are concerns, these days, that a recent effort to strip 25 percent of the Land Bank’s annual revenues and use it for affordable housing will end its ability to compete in the real-estate market for open space and desirable waterfront tracts of land.

On June 5, Town Meeting voters will decide whether to adopt Article 97, submitted by a private citizen, which seeks to divert 25 percent of Land Bank revenues to affordable-housing efforts.

The article has not been endorsed by the Finance Committee or the Select Board. Both have said there are better ways to address Nantucket’s need for affordable housing without compromising the ability of the Land Bank to fulfill its mission.

“If that article passes, the Land Bank is done for,” said Neil Paterson, chair of the Land Bank and a commissioner for more than 10 years.

“That would effectively end our ability to purchase critical properties and affect our land-management operations and the operation of the two golf courses we run: Miacomet and Sconset.”///

Marianne Stanton is editor and publisher of The Inquirer and Mirror and publisher of Nantucket Today. An ardent conservationist, she has served as a trustee on the board of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation since 1999.