The Block Island Times
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Land Trust: Dennis Heinz

By Gloria S. Redlich | Oct 12, 2012
Photo by: Gloria Redlich

Growing up on island and then living here for most of his adult life, Dennis Heinz has spent much of that life in public service to the community he loves. Simultaneously a member of several boards, he is now seeking re-election to a seat on the Land Trust Board, which he’s held for 12 years.

For six years in the 1980s, Heinz sat on the Town Council and for the last 20 years, he been a member of both the Planning Board and the Harbors Committee, the latter currently as chair. He adds that he also served on the Police Commission, an advisory board that is no longer in existence. He says, “We would meet and discuss things with the chief on a regular basis.”

As a youngster, Heinz attended the island school and worked on his father’s farm, where, he says, “We raised cows, chickens and turkeys. I picked eggs and delivered milk” — usually early in the morning. He adds, “I’ve spent most of my life here — except for the time I left for college and the service.”

Draft cuts off plans of teaching

Over the years, Heinz has had to reset his goals and adapt to life’s changing circumstances. Attending the University of Rhode Island, where he majored in education, Heinz says his dreams of teaching were cut short when he received a draft notice two weeks after graduation. Preferring to serve in the Navy, Heinz enlisted and he says, “The Navy Reserves swore me in just before the Army had” draft papers ready for him to sign.

It was the summer of 1964, just as Vietnam War was intensifying: “It was right after Johnson made that speech,” he says. He Is referring to President Lyndon Johnson’s address on the Tonkin Gulf incident, in which he said the North Vietnamese had “deliberately attacked U.S. Naval vessels.”

Having taken officer’s training while in college, once in the Navy, Heinz was stationed at Pensacola, Florida, where he trained as a pilot, something he’d wanted to do since he was young. But disappointment struck — though he passed all his flight tests, he developed some difficulty with his sight, and became a navigator instead. After his training, Heinz spent most of his four year reserve service in South Weymouth, Mass.

He recalls that while he was growing up on the island, there was no airport at all. “Planes landed in the hay field,” he notes, recalling that the airport “didn’t open until ’51 or ’52.”

Once discharged, Heinz again found his plans to teach interrupted. After his mother’s death, he “took over the store” —the Seaside Market — running it until he went into the construction business in 1973, later opening his own business, Dennis Heinz Construction.

After a first marriage that ended in divorce, Heinz was a single father raising three children for some time. Then he met and married his current wife, Gail, who was from Boston and had also been married before. Breaking into a smile, he concedes they are what is called a blended family, “with five kids and 10 grandchildren between us.”

Pride in the Land Trust

When Heinz speaks of the Land Trust, it is easy to see the spark of pride in his eyes as he identifies “the biggest thing,” which he points out was the acquisition of the Hodge and Jones properties. The first was purchased in 2002 and brought in 25 acres of conserved land that slopes down to Middle Pond and West Beach.

It and the 25 to 30 acres of the Jones land are owned and managed by the town, the Nature Conservancy, the Land Trust and the Block Island Conservancy. Heinz says he feels good about the close relationship that exists between these agencies.

Over the past several years of the economic crunch when property sales were down, Heinz says, people weren’t offering parcels to the Conservancy or the Land Trust. However, “with general sales picking up, “he explains, “it now looks like it will be better.” He notes that traditionally, owners “gave us a good break” when selling their land for conservation. Often, he says, “owners didn’t always ask for the full market price.” However, he feels a lot depends on the economy.

Enthusiastic about the work of the Trust, Heinz is especially pleased about a few recent purchases, including seven acres of Gorman family property, which abut and are to be added to the playing fields at Heinz Field, and two lots of the Solviken property. Heinz adds that the Block Island Conservancy is currently trying to raise money for a third Solviken lot.

Two other recent acquisitions give Heinz cause for satisfaction: the purchase of development rights from Joseph Sprague and from Adrian Mitchell. In these cases, he points out, the land remains open space; no house or outbuildings may be constructed on it. The owner can continue to live on it and farm it. Those buildings that already exist for housing animals are permitted.

Wants more young people to serve

He believes the addition of new land to conservancy agencies is incrementally bringing up the percentage of preserved open space from its current 43 percent plateau. Because of his deep commitment to the protection of the land and to improving the quality of life on island, he wishes more young people would get involved. He would like to see them serving on boards and commissions to help the community in which they have chosen to settle.

He does understand, however, why it is difficult. He says, “They are working several jobs and raising kids, and it’s tough.” He stresses that the reason he continues serving on the Planning Board is “so young kids who grew up on the island can continue to live here.”

He’s very supportive of families being able to parcel off a piece of their properties — within 50 feet of their own residences — to provide housing for their adult children. It’s an ordinance that’s currently up for review.

“Otherwise,” he says, “these island kids will never be able to afford to live here.” His concern is that young people who wish to stay on island and who have something to offer the community will be forced to move away. He’s working hard to keep that from happening.

 

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