Landing a Big One: Preservation, Private Development

By David B. Ottaway and Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 6, 2003

MARTHA'S VINEYARD, Mass. -- Two years ago, the Nature Conservancy triumphantly announced a complex real estate transaction, a $64 million deal in which it acquired 215 acres of rare open sandplain. Conservancy officials hailed it as "an important victory for conservation on Martha's Vineyard," part of a campaign to save the Earth's "Last Great Places."

The Conservancy, known for buying and holding raw land in perpetuity, did not opt for 100 percent preservation in this case.

Instead, as part of the deal, the Conservancy placed restrictions limiting some development on the newly purchased land and then immediately resold half of it to others, paving the way for Gatsbyesque vacation houses on pristine beach and grasslands. Those buyers included a pair of Oracle software tycoons, a retired Goldman Sachs executive and comedian David Letterman.

"It's a Last Great Place for David Letterman," quipped former Conservancy executive David Morine, now one of its critics.

For their part, Conservancy officials defend the deal as one that preserved half the land and preempted denser development on the other half.

A closer look at the serpentine deal reveals another unexpected facet: the transaction hinged on an $18.5 million charitable gift made to the Conservancy two days before the closing, according to interviews with people involved in the purchase. The Conservancy used the gift to buy the land from business entities owned by the same family that donated the money. That series of transactions allows the family to seek an $18.5 million tax deduction, according to a family spokesman.

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