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ARLINGTON

Deal will preserve island

Land Trust to pay owner $266,000

By Brock Parker
Correspondent / July 22, 2010

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For years, unpopulated Elizabeth Island served as the launching point for Arlington’s fireworks celebrations, and has long been a popular stopping point for birders and boaters, and the centerpiece of the town’s vista of Spy Pond.

For the last decade, it has also been at the heart of negotiations between its longtime owner, Elaine Sacco, and various preservationist groups hoping to acquire and protect the heavily vegetated 2-acre property.

Last week, four years after Sacco put the island on the market for $999,000, the Arlington Land Trust announced it had brokered a deal to buy it for about a quarter of Sacco’s asking price.

“It’s a special place, it really is,’’ said Bob Wilber, director of land protection for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, who helped with the purchase of the island. “Almost everyone in Arlington is aware of it, and I would dare say tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people see it every day from Route 2. It’s an important landmark.’’

Brian Rehrig, a member of the nonprofit Land Trust, said Elizabeth Island offers an extraordinary wildlife preserve in a very densely developed area.

“But its highest value, to my mind, is it is the visual centerpiece of the pond, and to have that diminished or destroyed would be a huge tragedy,’’ Rehrig said.

It was nearly 20 years ago, he said, that the island was listed as a top priority for conservation by the Metropolitan District Commission, which under the Romney administration was merged with the state Department of Environmental Management to become the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Wilber said it’s rare for a location such as Elizabeth Island to have survived this long without either being developed or set aside for conservation.

Sacco, whose home overlooks Elizabeth Island and Spy Pond, said she had entertained ideas about building a summer home there. But maintaining the island requires a lot of work, and at 71 years old, Sacco said, she decided it was time to simplify her life. Instead of seeing the property developed, she said, she’d like the Land Trust to look after and preserve it.

She said one potential buyer had proposed building tennis courts on the island, which is zoned as residential.

“I don’t know, I guess I made the right decision,’’ said Sacco, who has owned Elizabeth Island for more than 40 years.

Its past owners include the Fitchburg Railroad, which bought the island in 1868 with plans to use it as a center support for a bridge that would span the 100-acre Spy Pond. The company eventually opted for a different route nearby for its railbed, which in the early 1990s was converted into the Minuteman Bikeway.

By agreeing to purchase the island from Sacco for $266,000, with closing due by the end of the year, the Land Trust will ensure the island won’t be developed. As part of the arrangement, Rehrig said, Mass Audubon and the town’s Conservation Commission will hold restrictions on the property.

The new limits mean that Arlington will not renew its former practice of shooting fireworks from Elizabeth Island on Town Day, said Selectwoman Clarissa Rowe, who is also president of the Arlington Land Trust.

However, Sacco’s arrangement allowing the Arlington Boys & Girls Club to use the island for educational purposes will be continued by the Land Trust.

The club’s executive director, Dan Brosnan, said it is a good experience for youngsters in its boating program to get a glimpse at what it’s like to be on an island.

“If you’re 8 or 9 or 10 years old, it’s kind of exciting,’’ Brosnan said.

Rowe said she once walked out to the island on the ice, and the island is the home for many nesting ducks, swans, and geese.

“While a 2-acre island wouldn’t seem like much to a lot of places, to us it’s very precious land, so we’re very pleased,’’ Rowe said.

The Land Trust’s work, however, is not complete. Rehrig said the group, which was founded in 2000, will soon begin a public fund-raising campaign to help cover its share of the purchase price. The Land Trust has about $40,000 set aside, and is applying for a state grant that could provide about a third of the total. The town’s Conservation Commission will also contribute a portion of its dedicated land acquisition fund.

On a recent morning stroll around Spy Pond, Belmont resident Jeffrey Gallagher, 52, said he’s been coming to see the fish and birds at the pond for years, and he’s happy to hear Elizabeth Island will be preserved.

“It’s a good thing,’’ Gallagher said. Citing the lack of undeveloped land in the area, he added, “I’d hate to see anyone put anything out there like a dumpy old boat dock.’’

Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe@gmail.com.

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