SMF files lawsuit to move Quansoo gate

SMF files lawsuit to move Quansoo gate

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For about two years, representatives of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF) and the leadership of the Quansoo Beach Association (QBA) have wrangled over the location of a gate long maintained by the private landowners group to control access to an exclusive stretch of south shore barrier beach. That discussion has now moved to court.

At issue is access along winding Quansoo Road, a one-lane dirt road, approximately two miles long that provides access from South Road and leads to a private QBA beach parking lot and the sandy beach that divides Tisbury Great Pond from the Atlantic Ocean.

The road also provides access to houses in the Quansoo neighborhood, the 145-acre Sheriff’s Meadow’s Quansoo Farm, and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank’s 5.8-acre Quansoo Preserve, open only for parking in the off-season.

The QBA’s heavy steel gate is on Sheriff’s Meadow property, approximately one mile up the dirt road from the beach it is meant to protect. A QBA attendant staffs the locked gate during the summer months.

Only key holders, or guests, or workers cleared by key holders, are allowed to pass through the gate. A deed to a sliver of Quansoo beach comes with a coveted key to the gate’s lock. The lots have sold for $300,000 or more. The gate has traditionally been left open during the off-season, from Sept. 15 to June 15.

Sheriff’s Meadow asked the QBA to move the gate closer to the beach it is intended to protect. But those close to the issue said that a series of exhaustive behind-the-scenes negotiations and discussions led to no resolution. The QBA refused to budge. Now the road leads to Dukes County Superior Court.

Judge is needed

In an 11-page lawsuit, filed on June 4 (available at mvtimes.com), Ronald Rappaport of Reynolds, Rappaport, Kaplan and Hackney law firm in Edgartown, said the “QBA, an association of private beach rights owners, has no legal right to maintain a locked gate, which blocks a single-lane road and impedes access to a newly opened, 145-acre Sheriff’s Meadow preserve situated on the south shore of Martha’s Vineyard.”

Mr. Rappaport said the QBA had established its gate with the permission of Florence B. Harris, the previous landowner, who transferred much of her property to the conservation organization before her death on June 11, 2005.

The QBA has maintained the gate since approximately 1987 with the permission of Mrs. Harris and SMF, and provided both parties with keys, the lawsuit said. “The parties have engaged in extensive communications on this issue but have been unable to reach a resolution,” Mr. Rappaport said. “Judicial intervention is now needed.”

The lawsuit and associated exhibits meticulously describe the various land transfers and easement agreements that created the SMF holdings.

“In recent years,” the complaint explains, “the QBA has expanded the gate by sinking metal posts into the ground on its edges, apparently in an effort to block walkers or others from circumventing the gate by traveling though the thick brush on the shoulders of Quansoo Road. The QBA also posts a guard, who stops all vehicles and inquires whether the occupants are QBA members. These measures further impede or intimidate access to the Sheriff’s Meadow property.”

The lawsuit said that SMF has withdrawn permission for QBA to maintain the gate in its present location, but QBA has refused to remove the gate, claiming prescriptive rights, meaning access rights that can be established with constant use over time.

The complaint charges that the maintenance of the gate constitutes a trespass, and that SMF is entitled to damages. It asks the court to rule on the issue of QBA’s prescriptive rights, and if those rights exist, whether the gate can be moved, and if so, the times of the year when it is required to be left open, “and whether the recently added bars and an attendant-guard are permissible.”

Very disappointed

The lawsuit sets up the prospect of a court battle between two organizations whose memberships likely overlap.

Emily Bramhall, SMF president, said her organization is very disappointed that court action has become necessary.

“For two years, we really negotiated in good faith and tried to address the concerns, not just of them (QBA) — we have a lot of neighbors down there,” Ms. Bramhall said. “We tried to address everybody’s concerns. And we have made a lot of changes.”

She said Sheriff’s Meadow moved trails and constructed a new road designed to lessen any impact from visitors to its farm’s walking trails.

“It really is definitely the last resort and is frankly very disappointing to find ourselves in this position, where there is nothing more we can do,” Ms. Bramhall said. “We don’t want to file suit and spend our money that way.”

She remains hopeful that an agreement may still be reached with the QBA before the case is heard.

“We are still talking, and I am very hopeful that we are on the verge of getting something resolved,” she said.

Ms. Bramhall said the farm’s walking trails provide exactly the sort of natural experience that helps people fall in love with the land and want to protect it.

Mr. Rappaport also expressed some optimism that a court battle may be avoided. He said both sides are actively negotiating.

Adam Moore, Sheriff’s Meadow executive director, spoke cautiously and sparingly. “We are negotiating with the OBA, and the negotiations are encouraging,” Mr. Moore said.

A call Tuesday evening to the Quansoo house of Jim White, QBA president, seeking comment on the lawsuit was answered by Mr. White’s son, who said he would ask his father to call The Times.

The Times also left a message on the answering machine of Mr. White’s law office in Concord. Mr. White had not returned either call as of press time.

Lawrence P. Heffernan of the Boston law firm of Robinson and Cole represents the QBA and its 135-family membership. Mr. Heffernan was out of his office Wednesday.

Cooperative agreement

In October 2007, the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation announced it had received the Quansoo Farm as a gift from Mrs. Harris. “Located on Black Point Pond, within sight of the Atlantic, Quansoo Farm is part of the coastal sandplain, home to many rare flora and fauna, some on the brink of extinction,” Ms. Bramhall announced in a press release at the time.

Mrs. Harris, known to many as Flipper, also provided funds to construct a building on the farm for SMF to use and donated an additional parcel of land to be sold, at the foundation’s discretion, to establish an endowment to support the farm. Mrs. Harris’ sister was Polly Hill, for whom Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury is named.

The gift fit nicely into a circle of conservation properties around Tisbury Great Pond that included The Trustees of Reservations’ Long Point Reservation and the Land Bank’s Sepiessa Point Reservation.

The SMF announcement explained that guided educational walks at Quansoo Farm would be offered to the public, as well as visits for scientific and educational purposes.

In April 2008, Sheriff’s Meadow announced it had agreed to sell a six-acre lot off Quansoo Road on Tisbury Great pond to the Land Bank. The sale marked the first property transfer between the two conservation organizations, one a private nonprofit, the other a public conservation agency.

The selling price was $3 million. The parcel was the same lot Mrs. Harris provided so the SMF could establish an endowment.

Until this purchase there was no public access to the shore in the Chilmark portion of the great pond. The Land Bank purchase included a trail that circles the farm through one and three-quarter miles.

A parking trailhead was created before the gate for six-vehicles. A three-vehicle parking lot open only in the off-season was created on the pondside property to provide access for shellfishing.

Trouble begins

The Land Bank purchase and the prospect of public access disturbed some members of the QBA, according to Land Bank records and Sheriff’s Meadow officials. In emails and letters, Mr. White and Mr. Heffernan expressed concern that the public might use the trailhead lot to circumvent the gate, might gain access to the road and park outside the Land Bank pond lot and wanted the Land Bank to provide assurances that its visitors would not park outside the lot at any time of the year.

In a letter dated June 2, 2009, addressed to Mr. Rappaport (available at mvtimes.com), Mr. Heffernan asked how the Land Bank would “prevent unauthorized use of the Quansoo Road extension by its employees and visitors.”

Mr. Heffernan said increased vehicle or foot traffic resulting from public use “may make the QBA’s use of its easement rights less convenient — for example, pedestrians or bicyclists may impermissibly impede lawful vehicular travel over Quansoo Road and create a nuisance.”

Representatives of both conservation organizations attempted to ease those concerns. Originally, Quansoo Road made a jog just past the gate off the farm property and crossed three private lots, including Mr. White’s property.

When talks soured, Sheriff’s Meadow cut a new section of road ensuring that Land Bank access could not be blocked.

The QBA resisted providing access to Land Bank staff.

In an email dated June 9, 2009, addressed to Land Bank ecologist Julie Schaeffer, Mr. White said he could not provide a key to the gate.

“In fact, while I dislike having to say no, at least for the time being, QBA will not be able to give the Land Bank access through, or a key to, the QBA Gate,” Mr. White wrote. “This is because the Land Bank has no right fully to use the road going through the QBA Gate. Fortunately, the Land Bank can obtain access through the Sheriff’s Meadow Gate.”

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