SMF tells judge couple’s online comments scuttled settlement talk

The couple received a tent permit and erected a shed on the property at the heart of the dispute. The Chilmark zoning officer told them to take it down. — File photo by Nelson Sigelman

A lawyer for the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF) told a Massachusetts Land Court judge the conservation organization would not participate in mediation with an Island couple to settle a lawsuit over a disputed piece of property, because there was no certainty the discussions would remain private and not be used to fuel Internet critics.

Sheriff’s Meadow withdrew an offer to pay husband and wife Ben Ramsey and Nisa Counter $10,000 for land the Island couple bought for $9,000 in the Quenames section of Chilmark. The conservation organization says the lot Ramsey/Counter bought is part of property it owns.

A land court judge has ordered all parties not to speak publicly about a case that generated sharp online attacks against the Island’s largest conservation organization, its officers, and lawyer Ron Rappaport of Edgartown.

The settlement would have allowed the couple to walk away without a loss on the purchase price and spare Sheriff’s Meadow significant legal fees. SMF yanked the offer after details of private discussions appeared on a website highly critical of the nonprofit, according to court documents filed in the case.

In a letter to the court following a case management conference between both parties on October 6, Diane Tillotson of the Boston law firm of Hemenway and Barnes told the court that information that could have only come from defendants Ramsay/Counter found its way following the conference to posts on Vineyard blogs and Facebook pages. She said Sheriff’s Meadow, her clients, would prepare for trial.

“The fact that the amount of the offer my clients made in their initial settlement proposal (which exceeded the amount the defendants paid for their property, as recited in their deed) was reported in a blog is an indication that my client’s concerns in this regard are well founded,” Ms. Tillotson wrote in a letter to the court, dated October 14. “My clients will proceed to conduct the limited discovery we discussed at the case management conference.”

SMF claims title

The foundation argues that the land in question is part of the 10.5-acre Freeman Hancock woodlot off Blue Barque Road in Chilmark. It is property given by C. Russell Walton to SMF in 1973.

Mr. Ramsey 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.

The dispute began with a deed lawyer Eric Peters recorded on August 5, 2010, which recorded that Ben Ramsey and Nisa Counter had bought a parcel of land from Billie Hancock, the widow of Mr. Hancock, for $9,000.

In an earlier telephone conversation with The Times, Mr. Ramsey, 30, a general contractor, said that Mr. Peters conducted a title search and drew up the deed used for the August, 2010 purchase. Asked what the title search uncovered, Mr. Ramsey said that Mr. Peters indicated that “it is a mess.” Documents underpinning the title research are not part of the court record.

On August 9, 2011, Edgartown lawyers Ronald H. Rappaport, who represented Ms. Hancock but also represented SMF, and Michael A. Goldsmith, a lawyer in the Rappaport law firm, on behalf of SMF filed a 63-page complaint in Land Court. The complaint describes a chain of title that originates with a deed dated November 23, 1805, from Zacchariah Mayhew to Jonathan Mayhew.

Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter moved the title dispute to the Internet, where, in posts on Facebook and on blogs, they have been highly critical of Sheriff’s Meadow and property abutters, in an effort to rally Island public support.

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 in one early post.

In their Facebook arguments in support of their ownership of the land and in sharp criticism of the position taken by SMF, the couple has characterized the issue as “youth lots versus tax breaks.”

The lot in focus

The undefined lot at the center of the dispute is not a youth lot. According to town bylaws to be a youth lot, the zoning board of appeals must first issue a special permit to allow a youth lot applicant to build a dwelling on what would otherwise be an unbuildable parcel and then only after receiving planning board approval.

In August comments, Sheriff’s Meadow executive director Adam Moore said the Island’s largest conservation organization had, through a series of letters, telephone conversations, and meetings over 11 months, tried to demonstrate to Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter that Sheriff’s Meadow owns the land that it claims.

Mr. Moore said that Land Court is the proper venue for resolving title disputes and determining ownership of land, and it would not be appropriate for the organization to section off a piece of land from property it believes it owns.

Keep quiet

Following a hearing on August 18, Land Court Associate Justice Alexander H. Sands granted SMF a preliminary injunction that directed Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter to refrain from any further construction activity on the property and said that the couple could continue to use the property in a limited manner pending a determination by the court of legal ownership.

“Finally, both plaintiff and defendants shall refrain from arguing the case in the press,” Judge Sands said.

The October 6 case management conference convened by Judge Sands was a chance for the court to bring both sides together to discuss time schedules for legal filings and to encourage settlement prior to trial, according to a lawyer familiar with the process.

Ms. Counter and Mr. Ramsey, representing themselves, asked the court to dismiss Mr. Rappaport, whose firm represented Ms. Hancock, the executor of Mr. Hancock’s estate, from the case. In her motion opposing Mr. Ramsey’s request, Ms. Tillotson noted that the Hancock family had given, prior to the Land Court suit, its consent to Mr. Rappaport to represent SMF.

The issue was moot. Prior to the conference and before Mr. Ramsey filed his motion, Mr. Rappaport notified the court that he was withdrawing from the case.

“The sole reason is cost savings for SMF. There is no need to have two counsel appear in this case,” Ms. Tillotson wrote in court documents filed in the case.

In a post hearing order dated October 6, Judge Sands said the court “strongly encourages settlement discussions relative to this case,” and he asked each side to report to the court by October 14 “as to whether they will enter mediation.”

The judge said discovery would be completed by April 30, and he set May 3 as the date of a status conference to determine how the case “shall proceed.”

Judge Sands also expanded his previous prohibition against arguing the case in the media. “The parties are to refrain from speaking publicly about this case, including speaking with the media, posting on blogs, and posting on private Facebook or other social media websites,” Judge Sands said.

Pretty sleazy

In a post dated October 9, blogger Susanna Sturgis of West Tisbury, who has championed the Ramsey/Counter effort and characterized SMF’s actions as a “land grab,” reported that the couple scored a moral victory when Mr. Rappaport excused himself from the case.

“Given his prior relationship with the Hancock family, plenty of people were disgusted with his decision to represent Sheriff’s Meadow in the suit against Hancock kin,” Ms. Sturgis said. “It might not be a literal conflict of interest, but it still smelled pretty sleazy.”

Ms. Sturgis provided a blow-by-blow account of the court conference.

“It wasn’t meant to reach a settlement,” Ms. Sturgis said. “The objective was to ascertain what the opposing parties were willing to do to reach a settlement. Sheriff’s Meadow offered Ben and Nisa $10,000 for their land.”

Ms.Tillotson submitted a copy of Ms. Sturgis’s blog, and attached comments, with her letter to Judge Sands announcing the decision not to pursue mediation.

“The defendants [Ramsey/Counter] told the court at the conference at the court that the blogging would continue because they could not stop their friends from writing about this case,” Ms. Tillotson said. “Obviously, the people posting these blogs and making these statements are obtaining their information directly from the defendants, and the defendants themselves are controlling the flow of information. This was in fact stated to me by Ms. Counter outside the courtroom on October 6, 2011, when she told me that she could ‘make it stop’ (i.e. the blogging) if we were able to settle the case.”

Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter did not respond to an email from The Times seeking comment. However, in a blog update, Ms. Sturgis reported that the couple would leave soon for Panama, where Ms. Counter’s family lives and Mr. Ramsey has work to spend the winter and would return in the spring or sooner if SMF agrees to mediation.