Gerald E. Miller
Gerald E. Miller was interviewed by Mary Giles in 1976. He spoke about his work with the Land Trust.
Westport is eager to know as much as it can about your life and experiences, and for the Bicentennial I, Mary Giles, am bringing my tape recorder to you and asking some questions, which will help Westport know you better, especially your work with the Land Trust.
I became interested in the Land Trust, of which Mary Ellen Seeley is now president, because of my general interest in ecology as a whole. I’ve read a great deal about the activities of the National Conservancy, by the Sierra Club, the Audubon Seaboard, Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut, and the general purpose, of course, is to preserve open space. Our whole population at large has suddenly come to the realization that, if we’re going to have any future, we’re going to have to take steps to preserve some of our resources in terms of trees and woodlands and swamps and marshes and property of that sort. So, when I came to Westport Point permanently, which was in 1971, having bought my home in ’61 in anticipation of retirement, and during those years, we were lucky enough to be able to rent it most of the time and have it available for vacation and recreation for the family. But I inquired here and found that the Conservation Commission had acquired some property for the general benefit of the town, but that there had been no private effort along these lines.
I might just go on and say how the private effort differentiates from the public effort, either by the state or the town as the case may be. If property is acquired, either by the state or the town, it must be open entirely to the public, whereas the Land Trust can accept land with restrictions as to access by the public. In other words, some people are willing to give land, but since they may be occupying part of it, or maybe occupying adjoining land, don’t want to give it under terms that the public will have full access to it. This way, the Land Trust, which is a private charitable organization, can serve to fill in that gap. So finding that, I had a very close friend in Guilford, Connecticut, who told me about their effort there to form a Land Trust, when I came here and found that in this town there had been no efforts along these lines, although considerable discussion had taken place, I asked several men to meet at my house in early 1972. We put up a small amount of money, and with the help of Richard Carey Paull, organized a ‘Westport Land Conservation Trust,’ a charitable organization under Massachusetts’ law.
The group of men who were active in bringing the Trust into being, were Stephen Delano, Robert Grindley, Gordon Guptill, Theodore Moore, Jr., Lorman Trueblood, Levon Yacubian and myself. We received our Articles of Incorporation on April 26, 1972, and on September 18, we received a letter from the Internal Revenue Service qualifying gifts to the Trust as tax deductible.
The Trust is run by the members much as a corporation is run by the stockholders. At the end, May last year, which was the end of our fiscal year, we had 215 families as members of the Trust, and at the end of the (annual) meeting, they elect a Board of Directors, and in turn, those Directors elect the officers. So ultimately, the officers are responsible through the directors to the members of the ’Trust.’
I think, naturally, if it were very large, it would be an indication of wider public acceptance and wider knowledge of the Trust. At the same time, from the point of functioning, we have sufficient members now to carry on very well. The annual dues are modest, amounting to $5.00 per family or $25.00 for a sustaining member. We have accumulated about $5,000.00, which we think is a sufficient fund to insure against unanticipated expenses, for instance, we might have to do something with land that we had accepted that we did not anticipate, cleaning out, clearing out, so we feel that we have to have a substantial sum in the bank as a guard against eventualities.
If we had lots of money, yes, we’d like lots of money, because then we could purchase land. There’s nothing in our Charter that prohibits that, but for the time being, under present circumstances, we don’t feel is great compilation to purchase land, because though Westport is developing, it’s not developing terribly fast. You don’t have to take extreme measures to preserve open space. We would rather have people in the course of time make their gifts of land outright and under conservation restrictions.
We are gradually broadening our publicity effort, trying to acquaint people with the fact that the Trust is there; at the same time, we’re just one sort of cog in the wheel, the State and the Town, which can accept land for what we call high density recreational interests, that is, the examples would be Horseneck Beach and Demarest Lloyd State Park, where the public comes in droves for a specific recreational purpose. As far as we’re concerned, we’ll always operate on what we call ‘low density’ recreational purpose, that means bird walks, just a quiet place.
There’s much for the future, just let me present another slant on the situation in Westport. As you know, the land assessment is so very low that there is little impetus for people to rid themselves of surplus land. The tax rate on vacant land is very, very low. Now, if under the State law, the Town of Westport ever assesses under the basis of 100 per cent evaluation, many of these bits and pieces of land, which have been cut up by inheritance through families or the interference of the highway people, may suddenly realize that they have a piece of land on their hands that they can’t use, nobody else can use and ought to be dedicated as open space for the public benefit. Since I think the whole possibility for obtaining gifts will increase and we’re just biding our time.
We try to have bulletins come out three times a year now. Our newsletters are beautifully done. Mrs. Seeley puts that together; this goes to all our membership and we also send copies to all the Village officials and some school teachers. We send it to the newspapers, and then when a particular gift comes along, we try to make a special effort to put the news in the paper.
The Katzenbach gift, which allowed Mr. Mead to make those beautiful photographs of Westport, is a very special instance. When Mr. Katzenbach died, the family decided that the memorial gifts would be given to the ‘Trust’ and this is the only instance we’ve had of this kind and, it was further stipulated that the money be used for some effective memorial to Mr. Katzenbach, and in the course of our discussion, we determined that those pictures would be an appropriate memorial. They rotate from Library to School to School.
One little footnote that I might add is that publicity is not necessarily a function of money. I would say, in our case, if we had more volunteers who would be willing to go to schools, address various gatherings about the Land Trust, it would probably be more effective than an additional amount of dollars. We’ve asked the membership to volunteer, but not many have come forward. Bonnie Seeley has been sort of a one-man-show as far as that goes.
In Massachusetts, we really don’t differ at all from any of the other ‘Trusts,’ because it’s all stipulated under the Act for Charitable Organizations, and the Act for the establishment of conservation restrictions, which is Chapter 666 of the Massachusetts Act of 1969. It is very similar to the Land Trust of other states, although state laws may vary slights, a private corporation, run by private individuals, and is in effect a Public Trust.
I don’t know very much specifically about what is being done in the Middle West and Far West, but I do know that the move for open space on the Pacific Coast is very strong and growing. Some people in the State of Washington have been in touch with us and we’ve sent them a lot of information about what we did here to organize our ‘Trust,’ and we gave them a copy of our By-Laws and a copy of the letter, which we received from the Internal Revenue Service, so we’ve had that little direct connection wit this group in the State of Washington. Beyond that, I don’t know much specifically. Of course, the Sierra Club is largely oriented toward the Western States.
I might just add this, that people like the Sierra Club, the Conservancy Foundation and Audubon are interested in big chunks of land because they don’t have the local representation to handle the small bits such as our ‘Trust.’
Is the Land Trust aware that there are many people in Westport, old natives, who fear it, because they think it may do something that will hamper their freedom?
A person who likes to go into the woods, listen to the birds, follow the steams, will first of all have to make sure they are there. That’s one thing we are trying to do, in the long future ahead, because there is no question about it, that Westport has a lot of land that has not been developed, and there is bound to be impetus for it to be developed. When development comes, open space is generally prejudiced. I don’t know, as an example; look at what has happened at Long Island in the last 30 years. Beautiful woods, land, trees and brooks have just been let to be filled with little boxes and covered with cement. As I say, I don’t think we have that sort of a threat here, but there is the potential threat to the development creeping in that not only by acquiring pieces of land, but by educating the community generally on the advantages of keeping our environment reasonably open.
Some people feel that if the ‘Trust’ acquires land, and those taxes become a burden to our town as a whole, because if we acquire land outright, all tax is forgiven. It’s not very much of a question now, because as I said before, rates on vacant land in Westport are so low that when we acquire a few acres of land, that may involve $100 in taxes, and that is no burden at all, but even if the situation changed, I submit that the preservation of open space is a benefit to the town and it’s a benefit that the town can pay a modest amount for.
It seems to me that it can be proved that a given parcel of land, given to the ‘Trust,’ if developed, which is one of the alternatives, and one which I think is the one we are well aware of, it would increase taxes for the community by an amount a good deal larger than the amount removed from the tax rolls because of the conservation restriction on the gift. In other words, the increase in taxes, when a piece of land is developed, is brought about by the need for increased police protection, fire protection, street maintenance, and I emphasize particularly the need for increased school facilities. The school budget keeps growing at almost a geometric rate in relation to the population.
Everything isn’t going to be frozen as it is just now, and there is no doubt about it, that we will be deficient in open space if we don’t think about it and plan for it in advance. Let me repeat one thing I said before. The Land Trust is just a small cog in the wheel, the preservation of our environment has to be done by the United States, by the State, by the Town and what little bit we can do is not going to make the difference, but it certainly can play a part in the whole picture.
I think I’d better extend my remarks a little bit. I’ve already mentioned the recreational benefit. I would like to speak a little bit about the benefit of what we call visual amenity. Westport as it exists today, has lots of open space, trees, beautiful to drive through. Just imagine if a great deal of it were missing as in those towns of Long Island that I spoke about. So, if it’s there, people don’t quite realize it’s there, but once it’s missing, they know that something has disappeared.
Then, of course, there are the natural processes to be taken into consideration, such as a place for water to purify free of charge, or to be stored for future use, open space provides it in the form of forests and marshes, swamps and other wet places, a method of flood control, more efficient and less expensive than any yet devised by man.
Coming not to the question of conservation restriction, it is a rather complicated subject. Essentially, a conservation restriction provides that a person may retain the ownership of the land, and at the same time, restrict its future use. In other words, if you have a piece of land that you want to keep in its present state, your conservation restriction is a means to do that, and you as owner, and your successors, will have the use of the land as it’s presently being used. This is in effect, an easement, and once it is placed on the land, it stays there forever, unless it’s the type of easement that expires by limitation. It is unlikely that the ‘Trust’ would accept any but a perpetual easement, so it is a right, which constitutes an interest in the land, and obligates owners, present and future, to use the land only within the limits defined in the conservation. In other words, let’s assume that you have 20 acres on which you have your home, and you want to provide a conservation restriction. You could provide that, assuming that the ‘Trust’ would accept it, and assuming that it’s consistent with good conservation practice always, you could provide that just two additional homes could be built on that land. Thus, you preserve some of the developmental values, and at the same time, you freeze the land in its present state.
It is complicated. The lawyer always explains it by saying; consider the ownership of the land as the ownership of a bundle of rights, which extend from the center of the earth to the heights of the sky. One of those rights is the use of the surface, and this is what is involved when a conservation restriction is donated to the ‘Trust.’ It’s set up under State law. It’s perfectly a legal means, and as a matter of fact, there’s a tax benefit involved, because if the use of the land is restricted, naturally its value goes down. That difference is, in fact, tax deductible. The assessors I the State, by State law, are commanded to reassess the land in light of the conservation restriction.
In regard to the matter of hunting, the Trust has no policy differing in any way from any private citizen owning private land. With one exception, none of the rust lands have been posted, although the Trust reserves the right to do so if there is any reason to act in the future. The one exception concerns the ‘Ram Islands’ property, where the donor, Dr. Redfern, stipulated that it become a wildlife sanctuary. In that particular case, and if there should be others in the future, the Trust has put up signs, which in this case state ‘Redfern Wildlife Sanctuary – No Trespassing or Hunting – Westport Land Conservation Trust, Inc.’ Apparently, according to reports, I might say that they get torn down almost as fast as they get put up! At this time the Trust has no policy of establishing its land as Wildlife Sanctuaries unless the deed or gift so stipulates. Since the Redfern gift was one of the first received by the Trust, and because of that fact, the public seems to have the impression that the Trust is against hunting. This is not the case, taking the view of the National Wildlife Federation, that legal hunting is one sound means of wildlife control, serving to preserve the balance of numbers of game supportable by the environment. That pretty well covers our policy as far as lands that we own outright. On land that the Trust holds, conservation restrictions our policy on hunting is that of the owners, they retain control. It is regrettable that as far as the control of trespass, there is no means of control, except that of the arrival of the police at the moment the trespass is committed, almost impossible, and the nearest game warden, if in Dartmouth, so illegal taking of the game is seldom halted. Persons who live near the Harbor, hear guns before sunrise and after sundown, either of which is a violation of the law. Nothing can be done about it. The police have no jurisdiction over such violations if they occur more than 500 feet off shore. One can merely hope that there are enough sportsmen in the world who will obey the laws. Being an unincorporated territory, we can’t afford the kind of police surveillance that’s needed to enforce the laws. (Nice wooden signs torn down after about one month, probably by kids for college dormitory rooms.)
Since our point of view might not always coincide with our donors’ point of view, I can actually foresee cases in the future where we might actually refuse land if we did not feel that the donors’ point of view were acceptable.
I just have one little comment I’d like to make in reply to the question of any changes I might like to see made in Westport. I feel that our form of town government is long out-moded, that we really need some stronger central form of government, possibly with a town manager, and do away with all these little separate empires that exist and are open to, shall we say, corruption. I think the selectmen have lost control of many aspects of government, the schools in particular. I think we have to find some way for the people of the town to recapture their own government, and that to me means some sort of central management or control.