If You Lived in Camelot You’d Be Home By Now

The listing of Red Gate Farm marks the end of an era in Aquinnah.

Red Gate Farm in Aquinnah is for sale. Sixty-five million dollars will grant someone or a group of families or investors in the one percentile, or some conservation consortium, access to 340 acres of what is surely one of the richest wildlife habitats on the Eastern seaboard, including more than one mile of Atlantic beachfront, stunning, rolling dunes, and the western shorefront of Squibnocket Pond. And yes, that’s the property Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis bought in 1978 for what was then a record-breaking $1.1 million.

The announcement from Christie’s International Real Estate and its LandVest office in Edgartown came with a four-and-a-half-minute video that included a voice-over by Caroline B. Kennedy, portions of which were replayed on every conceivable news and entertainment outlet from CNN to Inside Edition. Let’s just agree the marketing launch was global in scope. Even Forbes and the Wall Street Journal took note, reaching those who count their money in billions, not millions.

There are some curious facts about the property. The total acreage is actually 366, not the 340 marketed for sale. In Kennedy’s letter to the community, published in the Vineyard Gazette, she noted that the family was “keeping our mooring, a beach key and a small house,” possibly the small hunting cottage that was there when Onassis purchased the land. Gerret C. Conover of LandVest confirmed that the family was keeping what was originally marketed as Lot 1, a forty-acre piece with access directly off State Road.

A seven-lot subdivision that Kennedy ushered through the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) in 2006 remains valid. Commissioners broadly praised that plan for reducing potential development from thirty-four lots to just seven, ranging in size from thirty-nine to 100 acres, with one beach lot forever unbuildable. No longer publicly listed for sale, the lots ranged from $22.5 million to a bargain $10 million forty-acre parcel.

Other than that, there is no over-arching conservation restriction on the property. Some observers take a charitable view and attribute that fact to the family’s sensitivity to the oversized role Red Gate Farm plays in contributing to the town’s tax base. 

About that revenue to the town: the latest assessment lists Red Gate Farm LLC as paying more than $250,000 annually in property taxes. To give you a sense of the seismic blow that would be to Aquinnah, the next highest tax bill is $45,657. The top twenty taxpayers continue downward to $19,926. Gulp.

Town administrator Jeffrey Madison was adamant: the loss of that tax revenue would be devastating. 

“If I had my druthers,” he said, “I’d be happy with a house on the six or seven lots that were originally marketed, because the tax receipts to the town would double or triple. I just don’t think the property would change much if there were six houses rather than one.”

Gus Ben David, the now-retired longtime steward of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, is all for private ownership as well. Ben David, who enjoyed a warm friendship with Onassis when she’d bring her children and then her grandchildren to him to inspect a giant snapping turtle or the lizard collection, called Red Gate Farm “one of the most unique places on the entire Eastern seaboard.”

Ben David’s concern with conservation acquisition is the certain obligation it brings to provide public access.

Again, the druthers. “If I had my druthers,” he said, “I would wish some wealthy individual or corporation would buy the land and have minimal building but maintain the place under private domain. I fail to see how any conservation organization would be able to maintain the integrity of the land, because one of their mandates is going to be for public access and that will bastardize the land because it’s so hard to control indiscriminate public use.”

So, what kind of potential private buyer or buyers might be intrigued to take on the price tag and responsibility? According to Peyton Wallace and Bill Rossi, the Vineyard realty team for Compass, there are always buyers looking for the cache of owning a piece of genuine celebrity or history. Certainly, Red Gate Farm checks both those boxes.

“It makes me think of a few other properties,” said Wallace. “Blue Heron Farm, which the Obamas touched, like the former homes of [Mike] Wallace or [Walter] Cronkite or even Katharine Graham. People definitely respond to that kind of thing. It gives them certain bragging rights. It’s a pretty small percentage of people, but they do exist.”

Both realtors had previously shown some of the lots within Red Gate Farm, yet none sold. First, they said, undeveloped land, however beautiful, can be a hard sell. Secondly, the conditions imposed in the MVC’s 2006 ruling raised a red flag for some about incurring expensive regulatory entanglements. Lastly, in the $10-million-plus marketplace, there’s some pretty gorgeous properties out there, most of them more convenient to down-Island life than Aquinnah. 

Back to Aquinnah town administrator Madison. When the potential sale was announced, he suggested forming a small discussion group of local leaders and residents to consider the potential ramifications for the town. The problem? No one was interested. 

Mitzi Pratt, who has lived across the road from Red Gate Farm for thirty-five years, believes she knows why. 

“I’m not worried about it at all,” said Pratt, who has marveled at how long the property has remained largely untouched. “It will sit there for quite a while because of the price tag and the pending casino nonsense. I would think a buyer would be hesitant to pay that kind of money until they knew what was going on with the casino and what the impacts will be.”

Ah yes, the Aquinnah Cliffs Casino proposed by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) – essentially an electronic bingo hall with a full bar and food trucks outside – has already broken ground around the corner. The Tribe had hoped for an opening this summer, but the town issued a cease and desist order that, as of press time, was still in effect. The move followed a federal court ruling that found that though the Tribe had a right to construct a casino, it was required to abide by state and local building regulations.

Since local conservation leaders would not comment on the future of Red Gate Farm or flag their interest in the property, let’s give the last word to Pratt.

“It seems to me no one up here is really paying attention,” she said. “There’s no sense of urgency. The casino thing is sort of going to put a hold on all kinds of things, including this one.”

Comments (1)

Nelson Sigelman
Gus Ben David said, "I fail to see how any conservation organization would be able to maintain the integrity of the land, because one of their mandates is going to be for public access and that will bastardize the land because it’s so hard to control indiscriminate public use.” I think the history of public access on Martha's Vineyard demonstrates otherwise. Cedar Tree Neck Preserve in West Tisbury (Sheriff's Meadow Foundation), Waskosim's Rock Preserve (Martha's Vineyard Land Bank) in West Tisbury and Wasque Reservation/ Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge (The Trustees of Reservations) in Edgartown are examples of properties that combine public access with responsible stewardship, much to the benefit of Island residents and visitors.
January 20, 2020 - 12:13pm