Co-op Gives Up Effort To Buy Cape Herb Property

by Rich Eldred

BREWSTER – The Great Cape Tiny Village is no more.

The co-op of interested parties that hoped to purchase the 15 acres on which Great Cape Herbs and the Snowy Owl Coffee Roasters sit in the heart of Brewster has given up the effort. They’d hoped to raise $3.5 million to maintain the landscaped land as an arboretum, parkland, educational resource and public meeting place, as it has been for decades.

“We’re all sad. I feel like this is a breakup. We’re living through a divorce,” Co-op Vice President Laura Kelley said. “There’s not going to be a tiny village, so many dreams were over the top. We can’t believe it is over. The co-op will move on. We are taking a timeout. We had to cut our losses and do the right thing for us.”

They’d spent two years trying to finance the purchase, maintain the property and businesses and reach an accord with the town of Brewster, which had issued a series of enforcement orders due to zoning and conservation violations that accumulated over 30 years.

“It’s for sale, for $3.5 million,” Great Cape Herbs founder Stephan Brown said last week as he strolled his property. He returned this month after a year or more across the sea in the Azores and elsewhere after he’d decided to sell and retire.

Brown originally began the College Yard Service in 1967. That morphed into Eastleigh Nurseries in 1973; he still has the old sign out back. The Great Cape Cod Herb, Spice and Tea Company emerged from that. Plantings from the nursery days, now full-sized gingko and apple trees, berry patches and vineyards, dot the 15 acres. The Snowy Owl occupies what was the herb shop, which is now tucked neatly into an addition out back and ably run by Donna Wright since 2016.

That’s the public face of the property. Out back there are other buildings, benches and places to sit, trails and old roads, a stream and wetlands filled with towering red maples and tupelos, Atlantic white cedars and more exotic trees, herbs and shrubs Brown planted since the Eastleigh days.

“My hope is that someone takes care of it the way I did for 50 years,” Brown said of the land. “Beyond that there are not any restrictions. I want to be done with it and build another community in the Azores. No question it’s a forced sale because of things the town did.”

The Brown Realty Trust, the entity that actually owns the 15 acres, has a long running dispute with Brewster over violations of the zoning code, board of health regulations, lack of permits, etc. that resulted in over $5 million in potential fines looming over the land.

“This is not a fire sale,” Brown said. “I’ve got enough put aside to pay the mortgage and bills until it does sell.”

He hasn’t extended any lease to the businesses on the property in order not to inhibit the new owners, whoever they might be.

“Sotheby agreed from my point of view it was the best thing to do. I hope to sell it ASAP and I’m happy to talk to anybody that wants it,” he said.

All of that is brutally disappointing to the Great Cape Co-op, composed of customers, friends and supporters who dreamed of buying the 15 acres, preserving the businesses and maintaining a community gathering space, garden with walking trails and natural vegetation. Through donations and pledges they’d raised just over $11,000, far short of the original $4 million asking price.

“There was a membership for $200, that kind of thing, but we got less than 50 people.” Kelley said. “We’ve given most of it all back.”

However, in addition to erasing over $2 million in fines through diligent work, mitigation and negotiation with the town over the past two years, with a plan in hand to wipe out the remaining $3 million by the end of the year, they’d secured the promise of a bank loan of $2 million and had a nine-page purchase and sale agreement on the table. The prospective price was reduced to $3.5 million.

“It was $1.6 million up front and the rest of the appraised value over five years,” Dave Schlesinger, clerk and a director of the co-op explained. “[The $1.6 million] would be paid out six months from the signing in cash.”

That was back in September when the co-op was Zooming into meetings with Brown while he was in the Azores or elsewhere.

“I just kept asking for time to write for grants and to reach out to the community,” Kelley recalled. “Everything seemed doable. I did a lot of outreach. I found foundations, grant writers, nonprofits. I had my list. We created a logo, a website. Jillian Douglass joined us and she had knowledge of the town requirements. I spent my free time to do this work and we still did upkeep on the land. We worked so well together.”

But Brown was reluctant to have an appraisal of the property, and after the protracted back and forth, the co-op abandoned the effort.

“We as the co-op, we said yes to everything,” Kelley lamented. “One to two thousand a month, that’s fine. If you sign the purchase and sale we will pay the $15,000 to get the appraisal and whatever the number is we’d have five years from Sept. 1, to pay the appraised value. We were giving him everything he asked for and he would not sign the purchase and sale time and time again. We had four different lawyers.”

She added, “We were in the process of building Great Cape Village. It stemmed from his vision. We were maintaining the property for two years. Conservation was a big piece of this puzzle and Davey cleared up all these pieces. ” But, she said, at 4:30 Friday afternoon March 1, “we let the dream go.”

“We had extended ourselves too far at this point,” Schlesinger said. “[The sale price] wasn’t based on an appraisal. The oldest of the enforcement orders is gone, that’s $2 million. The remaining three enforcement orders are set to be dissolved as conditions are met. It is out of enforcement as long as conditions are met.”

The co-op has now withdrawn from managing the property.

“The work Davey did was extensive, it’s been two years working hand in hand with [the] conservation [commission],” Kelley said. “He brought good vibes back between the town and property. That’s what I feel is the priceless part.”

There is still a lot of work to do. Culverts diverting a stream have to be moved, structures and fill taken down and taken out, wetlands restored.

”In November I talked with (Town Manager) Peter Lombardi and said we needed to look at this from a high level,” Schlesinger recalled. “Peter Lombardi was very helpful in finding a way out of this. I think the town cares about what happens here. Hopefully Stephan finds a buyer. Only about four acres are able to be developed. They’re all in front.”

The back acreage is marbled with wetlands and bisected by the stream which would make any development there difficult. But it is well located directly across from Foster Square and Cumberland Farms. The portion of the land adjacent to Route 6A hosts six businesses; three are seasonal, but the herb shop and Snowy Owl are year round. There is a bike rental business, (the 15 acres stretches back to the Rail Trail) and a restaurant, Fare and Just, that is closing this month.

“We need a Cape property that’s open to the public and held privately,” Schlesinger said. “This was a unique opportunity.”