History of the Island Pond Conservation Lands

Island Pond Conservation Lands:
Created Through Partnership, Patience & Persistence

Left to right: Cynthia Sutphin, her daughter Anna Clark-Ramsay, and Liz Philbrick (Lavender Farm related photos by Stephanie Foster)

Story by Lee Roscoe
Vision, luck, persistence, compassion, patience, flexibility, fate—just some of the elements that form the origin of the more than 80 rolling acres of forest and wetland that beckon within the Island Pond Conservation Lands. This conservation assemblage with walking trails traversing old cartpaths bordered by bicycle trails near the Town Center has been assembled over 20 years by a partnership among Town Meeting voters, HCT, and landowners with the courage and will to make a difference for land, water, and wildlife.

It all started 30 years ago, when a truck went into a ditch in the snow in the snow forcing G. Rockwood Clark and land owner George Canham to get to know each other better while they walked for help. Rocky was looking for Harwich land to buy. Canham, a sheep farmer, then in his 80s, wanted to sell his acres to people he liked and who would appreciate the land, so he gave Rocky and his then wife Cynthia a deal. She paid him her small inheritance from a grandparent whom George, as it turned out had known. George liked the couple and sold the land at a fraction of the property’s value. “He was a wonderful man,” Rocky says. “He was so happy that we were happy.”

The couple cleared a big field on what is now 12 private (non-Island Pond) acres which would house the Cape Cod Lavender Farm, built the house with a fireplace and the painting of George Washington over the mantel, and began to raise a family of four children. When development threatened the surrounding acreage, Cynthia panicked. Rocky made it his mission to find out who owned the property surrounding them, forming The Island Pond trust of five partners to buy as much acreage as they could.

After 17 years of marriage, Cyn and Rocky divorced but remained friends and working partners for their children and the land. Cynthia married Matthew Sutphin, a Manhattan based builder featured in the New York Times and Architectural Digest who grew up in Harwich. All three had known each other since their late teens.

The reason much of the land now in conservation had luckily remained undeveloped was that the “railroad tracks created a vector; which stopped people from going across; out of site out of mind,” Matt says. “Before that, parishioners had used the area as woodlots for the Congregational church,” Rocky adds. Tracking down owners and making deals took him a lot of time and effort–“over 20 years working with a surveyor who helped backtrack all those titles.”

“At first we were greedy developers,” Rocky says with a wry smile, contemplating a development design with 2 acre zoning for about 23 houses. “We thought we could conserve and develop aesthetically.” But then “we got to know the land” and some of the partners had a change of heart. “We began to see how exhausting a subdivision is to the land, including planning catch basins, utilities, and roads is.” The first phase included negotiating with neighbors to put a road in from Pleasant Lake Ave. (Rt. 124) to replace the cart way leading to the acreage. That phase one road became Weston Woods Road. “It terrified us to see what happened to the land when the road was put through. It mauls the beautiful landscape.”

Red fox photo by Janet DiMattia

The more Rocky got to know this watershed which contributes to the headwaters of Coy’s Brook, which in turn gathers to the Herring River–its kettle ponds, water views, woodlands, salamanders, owls, foxes, egg laying spots for snapping turtles, abandoned cranberry bogs and vernal pools,  rolling dingles and dells,  the less he wanted to harm it. One bid on development almost doubled the number of houses possible on the acreage, and that was the last straw for Rocky. He felt dismayed, betrayed. He and Cyn and Matt began to ruminate on a conservation alternative.

A burgeoning conservation ethic was in the air when Rocky talked to the partners about saving instead of developing the land. But some of the partners wanted their money back. Rocky, Cyn and Matt went to HCT to discuss options. Isabel Smith, an HCT Trustee and also chair of the Town’s Real Estate and Open Space committee, and Robert Smith, HCT’s President, put together a plan seeking Town Land Bank funds supplemented by HCT fundraising to purchase the property, allying with town opinion makers who drove the project forward with publicity and community organizing.

But it was touch and go. Then James Marceline a generous land owner himself, got up at Harwich Town Meeting and after reminiscing about his own boyhood adventures in the sticks said, “It’s beautiful land. Buy It.” The town voted to do so. “That really took the pressure off,” Cynthia says. They were able to work with HCT to establish Town ownership and stewardship of the Island Pond Conservation lands subject to a conservation restriction held by HCT for passive use only, so the land and water could be permanently protected.

“This filled me with joy,” Cynthia says. “We’d made long term decisions for our posterity; it was great,” Matthew adds.  Cynthia who grew up playing in the woods of Bridgewater wanted the same for her children, a life of privacy, simplicity, in tune with the Earth, and filled with imagination, and to be close to good schools and to the center of town as this oasis fortuitously is. Saving the land was good for the family, good for the community.

And even as Matthew and Cyn and Rocky have blended their families of children and grandchildren, so too within this oasis of conserved lands, is mixed another one: Cynthia’s own Cape Cod Lavender Farm.

“I wanted to help out Rocky (a Rhode Island School of Design landscape architect graduate) in business,” Cynthia says. She’d plant some of the flora he used for his business in her gardens. Then she decided that as someone was growing hydrangeas in Dennis successfully, she’d pick one plant, lavender, to concentrate on. “A botanist at U. Mass Amherst told me I was crazy. It would never ever survive. So I did it.” Starting with 400 plants, she expanded to 10,000 which Matt bought her for a wedding present. She loves lavender’s versatility for the body and spirit. Lavender “pleases all the senses; it smells and looks beautiful; you can hear all the bees in it; it tastes wonderful.”

Although there is separate walking access to the Island Pond lands off of Queen Anne Rd, and the bike path, anyone who enters the farm’s surrounds can wander the trails, too. There’s even an enchanted garden where children can play near fairy castles. Indeed granddaughter Ruby wanted to have her third birthday there this March.

“We lucked out. This was one of the first exposures to the town of how to save land in Harwich,” Matt stresses. Rocky credits a confluence of the stars, and of kind people. Once walking the land with the late Mary Larkin, Rocky’s significant other, she asked him, “Don’t you feel the spirits here?” He did, and they were giving him headaches, saying, “Do this right or else.”

And like the ongoing forest succession, the work with HCT is ongoing too. “Sometimes we’ve given Mike (Mike Lach, HCT’s Executive Director) a hard time. But he’s been really patient,” Matt says. “Mike has worked very hard on our behalf” Cynthia says. “He’s a gift to the town.” The respect is clearly mutual. “Rocky, Cynthia and Matt could have chosen a different path, but instead they chose to fulfill their preservation vision. By partnering with HCT and the Town, they created a conservation mosaic of woodland and wetland, a legacy that benefits the community and generations to come,” said Mike

They’ll leave the farm to their children and if they don’t want it, HCT gets right of first refusal. “I pinch myself everyday” says Cynthia; so few people get to live like this anymore, especially on the Cape. “People don’t know what rural is anymore,” Matt adds.

The thing Matt and Rocky love about the Island Pond lands: the changes which happen within continuity. Matt says, ”Box turtles are returning. Where the recent storms blew down white oaks, there are openings of light; where it once dark, now it is dappled.” “These trees will grow to be huge, the shrubs will fill in and grow,” Rocky says. “We collectively painted a landscape like Cezanne,” Matt adds.