Land Court upholds Sheriff’s Meadow title to Chilmark land

Land Court upholds Sheriff’s Meadow title to Chilmark land

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In August 2011, Benjamin Ramsey and Nisa Counter received a tent permit from the Chilmark board of health and began work on a shed. The building inspector ordered the couple to stop. — File photo by Nelson Sigelman

In a decision issued April 1 in favor of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, Massachusetts Land Court Justice Alexander H. Sands 3rd ruled that husband and wife, Ben Ramsey and Nisa Counter, did not own a parcel of land off Blue Barque Road  in Chilmark, land on which they planned to build and the conservation organization said it owned.

In a detailed 26 page decision, Justice Sands said no deed prior to 2010 — when Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter purchased the land — and no plans and no records existed to support the couple’s claim of ownership.

The acrimonious dispute began with a deed lawyer Eric Peters recorded on August 5, 2010. The deed represented that Ben Ramsey and Nisa Counter had bought a parcel of land for $9,000 from Wilma “Billie” Hancock, the widow of former Chilmark selectman Herbert Hancock, Mr. Ramsey’s uncle, who died on April 26, 2001.

The Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF) argued that the land in question is part of the 10.5-acre Freeman Hancock woodlot off Blue Barque Road in Chilmark, and that it is property given by C. Russell Walton to SMF in 1973.

Mr. Ramsey said the land, a little more than one acre, was part of a separate tract and abutted the conservation property and was part of his uncle’s estate. When Sheriff’s Meadow rebuffed the couple’s claim, Mr. Ramsey, a contractor, and Ms. Counter, a physical trainer, moved the title dispute to social media, where, in posts on Facebook and on blogs, they were 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. In their Facebook arguments in support of their ownership of the land and in sharp criticism of the position taken by SMF, the couple characterized the issue as “youth lots versus tax breaks.”

At one point, Judge Sands 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, who represented SMF in the early stages of the case.

NS_P8210081-P.JPGThe creation of a road and the construction of a building described as a tent by Mr. Ramsey precipitated a request by SMF for an injunction. Although Judge Sands allowed the use of the “tent,” he ordered the couple to refrain from any further cutting or construction activity. Chilmark building inspector and zoning officer Lenny Jason ordered Mr. Ramsey to remove the tent, which more closely resembled an unfinished shed.

An effort at mediation failed when Diane Tillotson of the Boston law firm of Hemenway and Barnes, representing Sheriff’s Meadow, withdrew an offer to pay the couple $10,000.

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 two day trial held April 25, 26, 2013 in Edgartown, Mr. Ramsey represented himself, and Ms. Tillotson represented Sheriff’s Meadow.

In his decision, Judge Sands traced the chain of ownership of the parcel at the heart of the legal battle, a 12-acre parcel in the Quenames section of Chilmark, beginning with the conveyance of a large tract of land from Zacchariah Mayhew to Jonathan Mayhew dated November 23, 1805, through generations of the Hancock family, and ending with C. Russell Walton, who transferred the property to Sheriff’s Meadow.

Judge Sands said that a parcel comprising the western three acres of the disputed property was included in Mr. Hancock’s probate inventory dated January 9, 2004. “The value as of death is listed at $0,” Judge Sands said. “No further description of this property was provided.”

Judge Sands said, “There is no evidence as to how Herbert [Hancock] obtained title to the three acres and no deed existed prior to the 2010 deed “describing or separating the three acres from the disputed parcel.”

Mr. Ramsey attempted to bolster his claim of ownership with evidence that over a period of years, from 1982, Mr. Hancock paid taxes on one acre of the property and used it as a wood lot and dump for more than 20 years. Judge Sands said, “Where a person is not in actual occupation or possession, payment of taxes is not, in and of itself, evidence of adverse possession.”

No choice but to fight

Throughout the legal battle, supporters of Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter portrayed Sheriff’s Meadow as an organization with more than enough acreage to spare, but nevertheless intent on preventing a young couple from making a home on family land. This week, Sheriff’s Meadow officials said that the organization could not succumb to public intimidation to shed land and still retain the confidence of land donors.

Sheriff’s Meadow executive director Adam Moore said the nonprofit conservation organization owns about 2,000 acres and holds conservation restrictions over approximately 850 acres. Mr. Moore said the issue was always about ownership of the land.

“The judge addressed all of the points that we made and his ruling clearly confirms Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation’s complete ownership of all of this property,” Mr. Moore said Friday.

Mr. Moore said there was never any question that Sheriff’s Meadow needed to defend its title no matter how many acres it owns. “All of the acres are important,” Mr. Moore said. “The land was given to us for conservation purposes and we have an obligation to be stewards of the land and to care for all these properties and defend them if we need to.”

Mr. Moore said prior to trial SMF spent a considerable amount of time and expense to demonstrate to Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter it owned the land. Ultimately, he said, SMF could not set a precedent by alienating the property and was forced to defend its ownership, even in the face of a public campaign by the couple’s supporters.

SMF president John Schaefer of Edgartown and New York City said SMF does not have the flexibility to override donor intent. “And the donor’s intent in giving us this property was that it be conserved and not be used for building,” he said.

Mr. Schaefer said not honoring a donor intent would pose risks that could threaten the organization. “And as a conservation organization, we honor the intent of our donors,” he said. “We really had no choice but to defend our property.”

Efforts by The Times to contact Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter, who spend winters in Panama, for comment were unsuccessful. The couple did not respond to an email from The Times.

Comments

  1. Do you mean to say that a person who bought land from within his family challenged an entity who claimed they owned it, defended himself in court by himself, against an organization with unlimited legal representation resources, and lost? How could that be?

    1. Shocking. Not sure if this is another paid PR story for the deservedly tarnished SMF or a vendetta written by someone with a clear conflict of interest who can write such biased nonsense because he can. Either way, this latest go-round of the purposely misrepresented facts and outright non-facts, especially re the collapsible carpenter’s tent, are smarmy. Hats off to the Ramsey’s for not selling out for that 10k and especially for exposing SMF for who they really are. Glad SMF donors know how their money is spent. Sigelman must have a hotline to all things SMF-y, lol. Isn’t that shocking.

  2. Correct me if I’m wong, but wasn’t paying taxes on a piece of land on the Vineyard that you did not own lead to ownership, and common practice? This judge says no adverse possesion occurs from paying taxes on a piece of property.

    1. Adverse Possession requires much more than just paying taxes…and the time period necessary is 20 years.

        1. I didn’t want to go into the entire definition, but you wouldn’t need to have a building. You see successful adverse possession claims that occur when someone fences off a piece or the whole of someone else’s property and is actively using that property for 20 years. Anyway, it’s a difficult claim to win (for good reason).

  3. Will Billie Hancock be returning the $9,000 to the couple for selling them something she didn’t own?

    1. Actually the town owes the Hancocks 20 years of taxes they paid on property they didnt own.

  4. Time to chip in for Ramsey and company. They need donations to pay for a peice of land owed! Would that not be the island way against ” Corparate America “!!!!
    Sheriffs Meadow Foundation is now known for what they truly are, not Stewart’s of the land but ” Robber Barron’s ” against the islands social diversity and island fabric.
    Time to rise up against the terrinay of oppressors of the ” Island way of life “.
    I’ll toss $250 into that hat! We only need twelve hundred people to match it.
    Not a lot of money to let SMF know the disdain of the island people!
    Ps I don’t even know Ramsey and Counter, but feel justice must prevail in the end.

    1. I’d be willing to take you more seriously if you hadn’t caled SMF ” Stewart’s” of the land…..

      1. Lefty, “Stewart’s of the Land” is their motto not mine!
        Please note I did say there is no merit to their motto.
        I view them as Bullies and land Robber Barrons .
        A very poor lot of pios gods .

      2. Lefty! I just realized I was so up set I called them
        Stewart’s in stead of Steward’s.
        I just get so dang hopping made sometimes!

      3. And “corparate”. Last I checked it was corporate but what do I know I am a sheep and just a follower.

  5. Ben and Nisa. I feel for you. And I would like to help.

    I have a beautiful, fully functional bridge with scenic water views on either side. It is a popular fishing spot and handles large volumes of vehicle, pedestrian, and velomobile traffic. The potential for toll revenue is enormous.

    I hate to part with it, but I need to focus on my primary island business, and given your need, perhaps the time is right.

    It is known as Big Bridge here on the island, and it handles traffic between Edgartown (think blue blazers and sunburned noses) and Oak Bluffs (think Jersey Shore).

    Return from Panama, and take on this new venture. Let the past be the past.

    I will sell you this bridge for $9001 dollars. In the spirit of old Mr. Hancock. New fortunes await.

    How is the canal these days?

    1. Sorry, tired, old, unoriginal bridge jokes miss the point and the real lesson, despite the mean-spiritedness in the heart of the joke teller. The real lesson is this: do not donate anything, EVER, to SMF. Only pretentious fools think SMF is a benevolent land conservation organization. They spend donor money on expensive law suits against their neighbors (not limited to this couple), play with maps that also don’t belong to them, sell landscape material that isn’t theirs to sell, build a Quenames home for the director, and get into house restoration for fun. Oh, and SMF also spends a lot of donor money on throwing gorgeous fundraiser parties so they can get more fools to donate and then brag about all the things they do that have nothing to do with conserving land. Big joke.

      1. Actually you SHOULD donate to SMF since they will uphold and fight for the intent of your donation. If I donated land to SMF I would want that land as I specified in the giving. I would not want squatters to claim title (when researched non could be found) and I certainly would not want my giving intentions not fulfilled. Way to go SMF, you did what any donor would want. Fight to keep it away from building.

        1. Given the many examples of bad and damaging conduct by SMF over the last decade, no self-respecting environmentalist wants to donate there, no matter who the mouthpiece is for them, or how often the mouthpieces repeat what they try to get the public to believe. At least “Charolette Homes'” offer to sell a bridge was facetious. There are other, more honorable people working to preserve and conserve the island. My support goes to them. You need to do a little more homework. Islanders are not as gullible as you– or as gullible as you want them to be. Just think, when an environmental organization decides to have the famous Queen of Wetlands Abuse be their keynote speaker at their big fundraising event, discerning people can figure out what the true goals of this organization are… and who exactly their target donors are. I can assure you that they are not attracting real environmentalists. Maybe you enjoy seeing your donations go to usurped map restorations, but not me. Who paid for Adam Moore’s beautiful home? What’s his salary? When I shake on a business deal, I prefer to walk away without having to count my fingers. I would never trust SMF after their behavior in these last years. If they are environmentalists, I am an astrophysicist. I ain’t buying your bridge.

  6. Now where does one go? Pick the Vineyard Way and complain, tell everyone how wronged you were by the courts, take money from strangers or family and friends and fight? Do you bash “corporate” America every step you turn to in life? Teach your kids not to be trusting, to be cynical and be hermit like?

    That occupy movement in NYC proved to be a debacle in the long run showing Bank of America nothing but more profits and in your face success. Or do you pick yourself up, brush yourself off and work harder to show your family you have the fortitude to carry on in spite of the temporary setbacks you’ve encountered?

    What do you do?