A Threatened Wilderness on Nantucket

A wilderness refuge on Nantucket at risk of being swept up by surging development

Nantucket Boy Scouts on the Camp Richard obstacle course.
Nantucket Boy Scouts on the Camp Richard obstacle course.


NANTUCKET – The thicket of pitch pines and scrub oaks may be the closest anyone here can get to the wilderness, a secluded island of rare shrubs and threatened species within an island of proliferating hedgerows and ever more expensive cottages.

Over the years, Bob Graves has raised tens of thousands of dollars and volunteered countless hours to preserve this patch of woods for troops of Boy Scouts, thousands of whom have come to sleep beneath a sky dark enough to see the stars.

But as the value of land on Nantucket has soared and development accelerated, their tranquil refuge is facing a precarious future.

 the coming weeks, a judge on Cape Cod will decide whether to allow a lawsuit to proceed that could lead to the sale of nearly a third of the 100-acre tract known as Camp Richard, potentially making it one of Nantucket’s largest transfers of undeveloped land to a private developer.

The prospect of so much pristine property being cleared for new homes has sparked deep tensions on an island where developers and conservation groups have long battled. About half of Nantucket is now protected from development, despite a lack of affordable housing for its growing population of nearly 11,000 year-round residents.

“We need to preserve the character of the island,” Graves said. “This land was never meant to be sold.”

The lawsuit stems from a dispute between rival Boy Scout groups over who is the legitimate owner of the land, which the Nantucket Civic League gave to scouts on the island in several installments starting in the 1950s. The deed required the land be used for scout activities; if that changed, the scouts were obliged to return it to the Civic League.

Since then, the land has been maintained by the Nantucket District Committee of the Boy Scouts of America, whose members have hosted nearly 20,000 scouts from across the country at Camp Richard.

Graves was the chairman of the district until two years ago when officials from the Cape Cod and Islands Council of the Boy Scouts of America, their parent organization, told him the council had received an offer from a developer to buy up to 30 acres of the land.

Soon afterward, the Nantucket district board voted unanimously to reject the proposal, noting such a sale would violate their deed, and promptly transferred the land to the Camp Richard Campers Association, which has a nearly identical board as the district.

“We didn’t just say no,” Graves said. “We said, ‘Heck no.”

In response, the Yarmouthport-based council kicked Graves out of the Boy Scouts and sued him and nine others from Nantucket for fraud, conspiracy, stealing, unjust enrichment, and other alleged malfeasance.

“We were shocked,” Graves said. “It was very unscoutlike.”

In court documents, council officials argued that the Boy Scouts’ bylaws prohibit a district from owning land. They are the rightful owners, they said, and can do what they want with the property. They also argued that the deed restrictions have expired.

“We are quite certain of our point of view,” said Robert Chamberlain, the council’s attorney and its vice president of finance. “If other people respect that, that’s fine; if they don’t, that’s fine as well.”

He declined to comment on why the council was seeking to sell the land or how much the developer had offered. “I’m not willing to get into that,” he said.

The council’s publicly available financial statements show it has had significant expenses and losses in recent years. In 2013, the council reported nearly $788,000 in expenses and a loss of nearly $19,000. That came after a loss in 2012 of more than $51,000.

“It was very unscoutlike,” said Bob Graves.
Chamberlain attributed the losses to the depreciation of assets and said the council, which two years ago reported an endowment of more than $5 million, has been “extremely financially healthy.”

Boy Scout membership has plummeted in recent years, the proposed sale of the Nantucket land is the latest example of scout councils selling valuable property they had received as gifts. A report by Hearst Newspapers in 2009 found councils from around the country had earned tens of millions of dollars for selling their land.

Officials from the Boy Scouts of America, which has lost nearly a third of its members since 2000, declined to comment on the potential sale on Nantucket or why so many councils have sold their land.

“The national council provides guidelines for the use of resources and sets program standards but does not direct the use of local council properties,” said Deron Smith, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts, one of the nation’s oldest youth organizations.

Lawyers representing the scouts who were sued on Nantucket disputed the council’s arguments. The deed restrictions haven’t expired, they said, because the law doesn’t impose time limits when the land is used for charitable purposes. 

They also say the land was expressly given to the scouts on Nantucket – not the council on Cape Cod.

“This stinks to high heaven,” said Peter Fenn, an attorney for the Nantucket Land Council, a nonprofit conservation group representing the island’s former scouts for free. “It runs contrary to everything you would think the Boy Scouts stand for.”

He said council officials had told his clients the offer to buy the land was for just $3.5 million, which would be about half its market value.

“If it’s not simple greed, give me another explanation,” Fenn said. “These volunteers have been running this camp without any help from the Cape Cod people for 50 years, putting in thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars to make a wilderness experience for boys.”

Mary Wawro, a spokeswoman for the Civic League, called the potential sale a “nightmare scenario.”

Her organization opposes any development on the property, which she described as “pristine, natural open space.”

A development there would add a burden on sewers, traffic, and the fire department. “The island can’t support that kind of commercial development,” she said.

The Civic League also considers the Nantucket district to be the property’s legitimate owners.

“We support the people who for so many years paid the taxes and insurance, took care of the land, and did exactly what the Civic League intended when it made its gift,” Wawro said.

Others argue the land is needed for affordable housing on the island, where a report this year by a local housing group found the median price of a home, $1.2 million, is now too expensive for 90 percent of the year-round population.

The lack of affordable housing has become more of an urgent concern as the island’s population has increased about 14 percent since 2000 – more than anywhere else in the state, according to the Housing Nantucket report and data from the US Census Bureau.

The main advocate of the sale has been Donald J. MacKinnon, president of Atlantic Development in Hingham.

“There’s a housing crisis that we need to address,” said MacKinnon, who plans to build another controversial housing complex on land adjacent to Camp Richard.

He said there’s nowhere else on the island to build such a development.  “We have researched every parcel over two acres,” he said. “When people say the development should happen somewhere else, that somewhere else doesn’t exist.”

If the judge allows the sale to proceed, MacKinnon vows to pay market value for the land. He said he has told the council he would pay at least $5 million for the property.

MacKinnon also argues that the sale would have long-term benefits for the Boy Scouts, allowing the council to use the money to boost other activities, while still operating the campground on Nantucket. He said his plans would leave two-thirds of the land untouched.

“The money would help endow the camp for land they have never used,” he said, noting the scouts only use a small portion of the land, where they have five campgrounds, a sprawling lodge, and bathing facilities.

But opponents of the sale worry that development there would leave a permanent scar on their sanctuary, introducing noise and light pollution and setting a precedent for additional housing on the property.

Jeff Fox, the cub master now in charge of the island’s scouts, calls the property “a treasure” and worries that his 11-year-old son will lose the luxury of being able to experience the wilderness on Nantucket.

“It’s like being in the middle of the woods in Maine,” he said. “You’re not in the middle of nowhere there, but it feels like you are. It would be a shame to lose that.”

09nantucket - Cub Scout Pack 92 celebrating their first place victory at Chuckwagon, scout leaders Jeff Fox and Michael Wilson. (Greg Hinson/NantucketStock.com)
Nantucket Boy Scouts with scout leaders Jeff Fox and Michael Wilson.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.