Nestled in the Moors

An Aquinnah home surrounded by conservation land, with sweeping views of the Atlantic and private beach access, offers a remote, quiet retreat.

People tend to take their time driving along Aquinnah’s Moshup Trail, to better appreciate the sound of pounding surf, the smell of the salt air, the sight of sea birds gracefully soaring. It is an area lightly inhabited by humans, with few homes or even lights.

Getting a permit to build in this fragile area – a rare habitat called northern coastal heathlands – has become increasingly difficult in recent years, as town officials and land conservationists work to preserve the natural environment here. The homes on Moshup Trail are for the most part settled discreetly into the landscape – often narrow dirt driveways and mailboxes along the road are the only indications that they are there.

The southwest-facing shoreline area of Aquinnah has been the focus of intense conservation efforts for decades, according to Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS). The open moors that line Moshup Trail are home to many rare species, including the spotted turtle, northern harrier, and a wide range of invertebrates that exist there and virtually nowhere else. Biologists and ecologists are drawn to the Moshup corridor, which extends from the Gay Head Lighthouse down to the beach, because of its rich biodiversity. About forty acres along Moshup Trail have been permanently protected by VCS, whose members are engaged in an ongoing effort to acquire and conserve more land there.

Living along Moshup Trail can be appealing for humans – an easy walk to the beach, sweeping views of the ocean, and sunsets in the yard – but life is tough for the plants and animals that call the area home. Moshup Trail is a harsh, wind-blasted, salt-sprayed environment susceptible to fierce winter storms. To survive, creatures have adapted to the very specific environment, leaving them vulnerable to the slightest disruption. Habitat fragmentation, a result of road building, house construction, light pollution, and even pets, is the most pressing threat to the heathlands and their animal residents.

So obtaining a building permit in that area is no easy feat. Enter Natalie Conroy, the owner of Conroy Realty in Chilmark for more than thirty years. She loves real estate and she knows it well, but sometimes for a creative outlet she turns to renovating, redesigning, and redecorating existing homes. Natalie bought a 1.4-acre parcel on the inland side of Moshup Trail in 2007. She had given plenty of Island homes a makeover, but this was her first from-the-bottom-up project.

“When I first saw the property,” she says, “I didn’t know if I’d be able to get a water view because of the height restrictions there are on building, but I was willing to take that risk.” She knew the view was there, as crashing waves can be heard from the driveway and salt laces the air, but just to be sure, on her first visit to the site she climbed a large dirt pile and imagined a way to build a home that would offer an uncompromised view of the Atlantic.

To maximize the view, she planned for the house to be built with the main living area and master bedroom upstairs and the other bedrooms downstairs. Natalie was adamant that the lower level not feel like a basement. She credits architect James Moffatt from Hutker Architects in Vineyard Haven with understanding her vision immediately. “His drawings were perfect the first time,” she says.

Together they created what Natalie calls an elegant beach house done in the pavilion style often seen in the Caribbean. The three-thousand-square-foot house, built in 2009, is tucked back from the road, surrounded by indigenous plantings designed for minimal maintenance. There is an outdoor shower, and the stone walkway to the house is lined with old ship lanterns.

The main floor, with a white-tiled kitchen at one end and a fieldstone fireplace at the other, opens to a second-story porch that offers an expansive view of the Atlantic beyond the rolling dunes. That view is protected by the area’s land conservation restrictions.

The master bedroom and bathroom are also on the main upper level. The master bath and another bathroom downstairs feature identical oversized tile showers and big sinks.

The lower level is breezy and cool, with white tile floors, a comfortable, nautical-themed living area, a laundry room, and two guest bedrooms, one with a private bath and another that opens to a fieldstone patio. The main downstairs bathroom sports turquoise fish tiles from Mexico.

Despite a window size limitation to keep light pollution down, the house gets plenty of natural sunlight and the great outdoors never feels far away. Listed for sale at $2.25 million, this house, Natalie says, will likely be among the last new construction along Moshup Trail.