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Promises to Keep

Harvard University transferred the trust to the Animal Rescue League of Boston in 1934 as the provisions of the will did not align with the school’s curriculum. Under the terms of the will, the Animal League of Boston established a free summer school on Amrita to train teachers in humane work. The league used Island Haven for conferences and constructed buildings on the mainland for educational purposes. Animal lovers and advocates came to Amrita from all over the United States. A free summer school/camp for children was also established. Over time, the island’s properties became too expensive to maintain so the property was divided up and sold. The league continued to operate the school for children on the mainland where they learned about animal care, dog obedience, pet shows, nature study and wood-working. The school was closed in 2007.”

And this is where the story takes its turn to the dark side. As the Animal Rescue League ceased to fulfill its non-profit mission, the Town of Bourne required that the organization begin paying taxes on the property in the ARLB trust. The buildings of the summer camp were shuttered, abandoned, and allowed to deteriorate. According to Bourne Conservation Trust president Steve Ballentine, “Groups had tried to talk with them about using or renting the property for projects with the Oceanographic Institute and the Coalition for Buzzards Bay, but the ARLB wouldn’t budge. We as an organization would write to them to express interest in the outcome of the place—interest in purchase or some sort of charitable use. Because of the past history we had established, we expected them to tell us if they planned to sell.” Instead, the Baxendale property languished, first in the courts from 2007-2009, when the town prevailed in its desire to collect taxes, then as unused space. Legal battles continued in Boston. As George Seaver of The Friends of the Baxendale Legacy wrote in a letter to the Cape Cod Times, an appellate court ruling on August 12, 2020 stated that: “The ARLB did not offer any evidence that it had been maintaining the parcel as conservation land or even as refuges for animals. The evidence instead was that the ARLB only periodically addressed routine maintenance issues on the parcels and exclude the public through no trespassing signs. There was simply no evidence that the ARLB was pursuing funding or taking any other step to reopen the summer camp.”

Rather than uphold its mission and honor the stipulations of the Baxendales’ will, the ARLB quietly used the legal system to change the rules, remove any encumbrances on the property, and to sell 21 acres of land to a private developer. “It was weird how this thing happened,” Ballentine muses. “There was no word from them, and we had written to them as recently as February 2021 with no response. After we started seeing survey flags go up, we learned they had sold. There had been no communication from the ARLB, but they’d been in the process of liquidating from December of 2020. The only word came when a plan for development went before the planning board for an 8-lot subdivision on Megansett Road. This was the first notice to the village, the town, and everyone was in an uproar.” And these eight lots on the woodland, stream, and vernal pools were to be just the beginning. A second phase is anticipated on the remaining ten acres of woodland, extending back to the railroad tracks, which could potentially include higher density housing such as townhomes and condominiums. 

Aerial view of Baxendale Woods, Amrita Island and Squeteague Harbor.

While Cataumet villagers and other concerned residents organized, petitioned, and protested against the emotionally charged land deal, Steve Ballentine, along with the BCT, decided to speak directly with the new owner. 

“I met with Michael Intoccia and made it clear that people in Cataumet were very upset and felt betrayed, as a result of the sale of these sensitive properties. There was universal sentiment that the property was and should be protected. There is a great deal of emotion involved, and the opposition to any development plan would only increase. We were very fortunate that he agreed to work with us; he didn’t have to, and he certainly could have done better otherwise, financially.” Intoccia graciously agreed to sell the full 18-acre parcel of Baxendale Woods to the BCT, and he will keep a three-acre piece across the road, on the shores of Squeteague Harbor overlooking Amrita Island. This is where most of the old summer camp buildings still stand, and the future site for his family’s home. Bourne Conservation Trust is deeply grateful to Intoccia for the agreement. Says Ballentine, “As soon as I had the full purchase and sale, we went public and have been in full fundraising mode since July 4th. We’ve been trying to get the word out, talking to people, trying for the broadest public appeal.” And while the ARLB sale came as a surprise to Cataumet and Bourne, the timing may actually have been fortuitous. As the BCT winter newsletter points out, “There has been a big lesson learned from this pandemic: the importance of open space. With the quarantining and social distancing rules, people have been flocking to places where they can safely get out of the house, into fresh air and nature. The BCT trails are the perfect escape, and they have never been busier.” 

Photo by Tyler Fields

The Friends of the Baxendale Legacy released a video entitled Safe From Snares, in which filmmaker Laura Taft states, “The Baxendales donated their entire fortune in exchange for a promise. The promises have not been kept. We wish the Animal Rescue League would go back to fulfilling the Baxendales’ wishes—or give the remaining trust to somebody who will.” The time is now to help the Bourne Conservation Trust resuscitate that promise, to help them meet their goal of raising $3 million dollars before their October deadline, and to bring what’s hopefully the final act in this drama to a happy conclusion. In the words of Thomas Baxendale: “We depend on our heartfelt prayer and the prayer of each friend assembled here with us today that our good All Father may bless both bridge and island to all that is highest and best in life for all its future—faithfully yours as voices of the past.”

Chris White is a freelance writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.

To learn more about the Bourne Conservation Trust’s mission or to donate by the October 2021 deadline, visit https://www.bourneconservationtrust.org.



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