Deception alleged over Article 37 in Tisbury


To the Editor:

Article 37 was hastily added to the Tisbury town meeting warrant after the selectmen met in a closed-door strategy session, at their March 8, 2011 meeting.

Article 37 asks the voters to appropriate an unspecified sum of money to acquire a parcel of land, even though that purchase was already approved under Article 11 of the 1991 town meeting.

Curiously this parcel has never been assigned an assessor’s parcel number. These odd circumstances raise questions. Why are the selectmen asking to purchase this parcel when the voters already approved that purchase in 1991? What happened to the money set aside in 1991? Why has the town not assigned this parcel its own assessor’s parcel number in the last 20 years? Finally, why is there not a specific dollar figure included in Article 37?

The answers to these questions start with the official Minutes relating to Article 11 at the 1991 town meeting. There the town admitted it had mistakenly been assessing two parcels of land as if they were three parcels of land. The first (and by far the most significant) of the two real parcels of land described in these minutes is the parcel that the selectmen now want to acquire under Article 37.

This parcel still has no assessor’s parcel number, so I will refer to it as the Article 11 Parcel. These 1991 minutes correctly identify this Article 11 Parcel as a single, nine-acre parcel described in a deed recorded in Book 36, Page 692. The voters then approved the sum of $461,460.44 to be used for a purchase — a purchase that would never happen.

Instead of following the voter’s instructions, town officials decided to spend the voter’s money in a different way. They opted not to correct the mistaken assessor’s maps, but to pay lawyers to commence tax foreclosure actions in Land Court, using these inaccurately drawn assessor’s parcels. There the town claimed it was owed taxes on these fictitious parcels by equally fictitious owners. These phony proceedings were not halted, even after the town’s own 1993 survey of the area (which is now being used in Article 37 to describe this parcel) once again confirmed to the town the real identity and shape of the Article 11 Parcel.

The town’s plan suffered a setback in 1996, when a deed was recorded for the Article 11 Parcel from one of the heirs of the owner named in the deed referred to in the Article 11 Minutes. The town ignored repeated demands by the owners to change the assessor’s records to show this parcel as a single parcel with the same dimensions shown in the town’s own 1993 survey (although the present assessor is now looking into this issue). We now know that a proper assessment of the Article 11 Parcel at that time would have eliminated the incorrectly drawn assessor’s parcels on which the town was attempting to foreclose in Land Court and so would have ended the scheme in which the town had invested the taxpayers’ money.

Ultimately the Land Court was tricked into foreclosing on only one of the nonexistent assessor’s parcels in question. An alert examiner caught on to the scheme in the other proceedings, and the town’s claims were tossed out of court. Even in the only successful foreclosure proceeding, however, the town acquired nothing more than all title which a fictitious owner held in a non-existent parcel of land — namely none. In the meantime, as there has been no assessor’s parcel number assigned to the Article 11 Parcel, there has been no lawful valuation and assessment upon which a tax could be lawfully determined and billed to the owners. As a result, the town has now forfeited its rights to claim any taxes for most of the last 20 years.

So what caused Article 37 to surface after 20 years of keeping this debacle a secret? This past summer the probate court appointed an independent commissioner to sell the Article 11 Parcel for $630,000. The town was notified and given an opportunity to make an offer for the Parcel, but instead the town strategy now seems to be to ask voters for a blank check to double down on its failed strategy of using nonexistent assessor’s parcels and high-priced lawyers to create confusion and more legal bills for the town. Article 37 still refers to or relies on these same nonexistent assessor’s parcels as if they were real, even though the town’s own records and surveys prove they are not.

The town has become so entangled in this web of nonexistent parcels that it has spun, that it cannot get its own story straight. Article 37 not only refers to an assessor’s parcel number that does not appear on any map (42-A-31), but uses another parcel number (49-A-3.1) to describe part of the piece the town wants to acquire, when in fact that assessor’s parcel number identifies a nearby six-acre piece the town already owns. Perhaps the selectmen could have avoided this confusion if parcel numbers in Tisbury were only assigned to actual parcels of land that corresponded to recorded deeds or plans and the town stopped trying to exploit old errors in the assessor’s records to mislead the public and the courts. If the Article 11 Parcel has always been a single parcel of land since 1855, how can the town justify showing it as divided into two separate assessor’s parcels?

Now, Tisbury voters must decide if they would have been better off had the selectmen followed the voters’ instructions and simply purchased the Article 11 Parcel when the funds and a lower price were both available, or if spending that money on the alternate strategy of deception and abuse of power has led to a better result after 20 years.

If the voters still want to buy this parcel then they may wish to demand that Article 37 be amended to require that this single parcel be assigned one Assessor’s parcel number, as required by law, and then that it be acquired by honest purchase at fair value in a transparent process — not by strategies involving shell games with phony assessor’s parcels hatched in secret sessions.

Perhaps, however, the more important question is whether the taxpayers still want to pay for this parcel. Much has changed in 20 years and a lot of money has already been wasted. What harm will one new home do in an area that is otherwise completely controlled by the town and conservation and is heavily regulated to ensure aquifer protection? My number is in the book. Call if you have questions.

Ronald Monterosso