Update: Sheriff’s Meadow counters couple’s claim to Chilmark lot

Benjamin Ramsey and Nisa Counter received a tent permit from the Chilmark board of health. The structure they built is approximately 15 feet by 20 feet and resembles an unfinished cabin. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

The Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF), Martha’s Vineyard’s largest private nonprofit conservation organization, and a couple with deep Island ties are locked in a nasty title dispute over property each side claims, in the Quenames section of Chilmark .

The dispute has moved to Massachusetts Land Court. Sheriff’s Meadow has asked the court to bar husband and wife Benjamin Ramsey and Nisa Counter from any further clearing of the property, use, or building on it, and to determine legal ownership.

On August 9, the court granted the conservation organization a temporary restraining order. Today, Thursday, August 18, both sides are expected in a Boston courtroom where SMF will ask for a permanent restraining order until the question of ownership is settled.

Boundary questions and the legal filings they spawn are not unusual on Martha’s Vineyard, where time can cloud property ownership and lot lines may be informally defined. What has raised the profile of this argument is the degree to which Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter have sought to rally Island public opinion through the use of the social network website Facebook, and efforts to publish online comments and in-print Letters to the Editor on mvtimes.com and the print edition of the newspaper.

In website posts under the title, “Youth lots vs. tax breaks,” the couple has characterized their opponents in the harshest terms. They have struck back at abutting property owners — “Perhaps if we’d bought the land for a million dollars they would want to be our friends?” — and invoked the fight for affordable housing, “All we want is a place to call home, to pay taxes to the town, to raise a family, and be part of the community.”

The couple likened Sheriff’s Meadow to a corporation using unseemly tactics to acquire and protect land. “Big conservation speaks from huge egos, through expensive lawyers, to bully and intimidate their opposition with costly lawsuits and lengthy court battles,” Ms. Counter wrote.

Sympathetic Islanders have rallied around the couple. On Facebook, they have provided advice and support in numerous postings.

It is an unusual position for the Sheriff’s Meadow board, which includes a mix of prominent seasonal and year-round residents with a track record of community service. They have generally come to expect applause and not brickbats for their efforts.

Mired in history

The land in question is part of the 10.5-acre Freeman Hancock woodlot off Blue Barque Road in Chilmark that C. Russell Walton donated in 1973, Sheriff’s Meadow says.

Not so, according to Mr. Ramsey. He says the land, a little more than one acre of which he wants to build on, belonged to his great-uncle and former Chilmark selectman Herbert Hancock, and abuts the conservation property.

A 63-page complaint, dated August 9 and filed in Land Court on behalf of SMF by Edgartown lawyers Ronald H. Rappaport and Michael A. Goldsmith, describes a chain of title that originates with a deed dated November 23, 1805, from Zacchariah Mayhew to Jonathan Mayhew.

The complaint (available at mvtimes.com) includes a copy of a deed recorded on August 5, 2010, in which Ben Ramsey and Nisa Counter bought a parcel of land from Billie Hancock, the widow of Mr. Hancock, for $9,000.

“The 2010 deed creates new property lines never before shown on a plan or on an assessors map, or previously described in a deed,” the complaint said.

In a prepared statement provided to The Times, Sheriff’s Meadow executive director Adam Moore said, “Through a series of letters, telephone conversations, and meetings over the past eleven months, Sheriff’s Meadow has tried to demonstrate to Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter that Sheriff’s Meadow owns the land that they are claiming.”

Mr. Moore said that SMF research included an extensive review of the title. “Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter do not accept that they have no ownership,” he said. “They have subsequently constructed a wooden platform and built a structure with wooden sides and a wooden roof.

“In Massachusetts, there is a venue for resolving title disputes and determining ownership of land, and that venue is the Land Court. Sheriff’s Meadow has filed a lawsuit in the Land Court so that this dispute can be properly adjudicated.”

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Mr. Moore, referring to a possible route to a settlement of the dispute, said it would not be appropriate for the organization to section off a piece of land from property it believes it owns.

“I think we have to keep in mind the confidence of donors and the public in the organization and its conservation mission,” he said. “And I think about the impact of what a decision we make here would have on the overall holdings for the Foundation.”

Risk worth taking

In a telephone conversation Monday, Ben Ramsey, 30, a general contractor, described his efforts to find land on which to build. He said he spoke to Mrs. Hancock in the fall of 2009 about a purchase.

Mr. Ramsey said his great-aunt told him to go down to the town hall and see what she owned. “She said if there is something that works for you, then I would really be happy to help you,” he told The Times.

Lenny Jason, building inspector and a member of the Chilmark board of assessors, assisted him in the search for a suitable property, according to Mr. Ramsey.

Throughout the winter, he said, lawyer Eric Peters conducted a title search and drew up the deed used for the purchase that August. Asked if any problems surfaced during that search process, Mr. Ramsey said that Mr. Peters indicated that “it is a mess.”

Mr. Peters did not return a message left on his answering machine.

Although Mr. Ramsey referred in the conversation to Geoghan Coogan of Vineyard Haven, the couple is not currently represented by a lawyer. Mr. Coogan told The Times he had consulted with the couple but is not representing them.

Mr. Hancock had paid taxes on the lot, Mr. Ramsey said, but the boundaries did not appear on the town’s assessor’s maps. Mr. Jason confirmed that claim in a conversation with The Times. However, the courts have ruled that property tax payments cannot be used to substantiate a claim of ownership, according to a lawyer familiar with property disputes.

“Essentially, the best picture we knew was that we had a claim and that Herbie had been using it and possibly other people and we might have to go to Superior Court here for an adverse use claim,” Mr. Ramsey said, “but we thought it was against a trust and it wasn’t against Sheriff’s Meadow.”

Mr. Ramsey said he and his wife, a personal trainer, had been looking for a place to call their own for a very long time. “It seemed a risk worth taking,” he said of the purchase.

Mr. Ramsey said they understood that someone might come forward, but assumed they could proceed based on the assumption that they had a strong claim and might be able to reach an agreement that would avoid costly litigation. “If there was no objection we thought that we could build a house or a camp or at least something,” he said in an effort to establish themselves.

Regarding Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, Mr. Ramsey said, “Well, we knew they were an abutter, and we knew that they might think that they owned it, but as far as the title work was concerned, we did not think that they did.”

Mr. Ramsey said he thought that if they approached Sheriff’s Meadow, and if the conservation organization agreed that there were no clearly defined boundaries, then a compromise might be struck that would give the couple a buildable lot and Sheriff’s Meadow a defined boundary.

Mr. Ramsey and his wife began construction on the disputed property of a woodframe building about 15 feet by 20 feet, and they cut an access road to the building site. They did so without an approved building permit or septic plan. They did receive a tent permit from the Chilmark board of health.

Asked why he moved forward, knowing that there was a title dispute, Mr. Ramsey said that after a series of meetings and discussions with Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation representatives, they decided it was time to force the issue.