SJC protects century-old Crystal Lake park lots
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in an April 4 decision written by Justice John M. Greaney, sided with the town of Oak Bluffs and several neighbors of three small, wooded park lots totaling less than three acres behind Crystal Lake, in a ruling which protects the park lots set out in an 1873 subdivision.
The park lots resemble more than 100 others, many now privately owned, that were created in the late 19th and early 20th century during an active period of real estate development in Oak Bluffs. Former owners of the lots, who lost title for non-payment of taxes, claimed that the subdivision plan which set out the lots as parks did not protect them from development today. They proposed to regain possession of the lots by selling one as a building lot and using the proceeds to pay the outstanding tax liability. The town and several neighbors moved to protect the parks and prevent construction on them.
Lisa Reagan, who along with her husband, Jack, began the fight to save the parks, said she and her husband were elated to have won a very long and expensive legal battle that will protect the parks forever.
"It is gratifying to know it will always be parkland," said Ms. Reagan.
She said they were very glad when the town joined in the suit. Ms. Reagan said Ron Rappaport, Oak Bluffs town counsel who represented the town before the SJC, was "very eloquent" in arguments before the high court.
For his part, Mr. Rappaport described the SJC decision as a big victory for the town and for the neighbors that will have implications beyond the boundaries of the small parcels that were the focus of the case. "While these parks are small," said Mr. Rappaport, "the principle that the court has announced will affect other parks in the town and in other towns on the Island and throughout the Commonwealth."
Mr. Rappaport said the decision is consistent with decisions at the turn of the last century relating to Ocean Park and Waban Park and will preserve these areas as parks in the future.
One of the critical factors to the success of the town's position, Mr. Rappaport explained, were the deeds dating back to the 19th century under which the lots were designated parks.
Mr. Rappaport credited the Oak Bluffs selectmen and the Community Development Council for their efforts to locate and preserve parks in Oak Bluffs. "The selectmen gave up tax money to have these properties preserved as parks, and it was a choice that benefits the community," he said. "The selectmen made a decision that collecting revenues from these parcels as buildable lots was not nearly as valuable to the community as their preservation as parks."
"This is a victory for the town and all the residents of Martha's Vineyard," said Greg Coogan, chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen. "One of the most important assets the town has is its parks and being able to protect them is of primary importance to all of us."
Mr. Coogan credited the Community Development Council and Casey Sharpe, town administrator, for their roles in the effort that resulted in the legal victory.
Ms. Reagan said her involvement began six years ago when she and her husband became concerned about possible development of a park used by their children and other neighborhood kids. They began looking for a way to preserve the land and appealed to the town and the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank. "We only turned to litigation when there was no other choice," she said.
The couple contacted Daniel Perry of the New Bedford law firm of Perry, Hicks, Crotty and deShaies. They went into the fight five and a half years ago thinking it would cost approximately $5,000.
She and her husband did as much research as possible to keep the costs down and were proud to see some of the information they discovered included in the decision. "My husband, Jack, deserves the credit for taking this," she said. "He thought it was a noble cause, and I'm glad I followed him."
Noble, but expensive. The victory left the couple with legal bills of approximately $35,000. Donations have helped defray the costs, but the couple still has an outstanding balance of $20,000, Ms. Reagan said.
The lots protected by the SJC decision are part of what was called the Bellevue Heights subdivision, originally owned by Tarleton C. Luce. Mr. Luce recorded a subdivision plan in 1872, which divided 165 acres of land into approximately 917 buildable lots of about 5,000 square feet each. The plan also laid out the park lots and labeled them "Prospect Park." The parks are larger than the building lots, and they are not numbered nor strictly rectangular. The deeds to people who came to own the buildable lots in Bellevue Heights do not mention the parks or grant any express easements to use them, but they do make reference to the plan which included the lots.
The town of Oak Bluffs owns the lots now. It seized them in 1996 for nonpayment of real estate taxes. The individual defendants in the SJC case, Louise Brissey, Rosalyn Yenzer, and Rosalyn Luce Sadler, co-own what the court called an "equity of redemption in the parks."
The SJC, in a decision written by Justice Greaney, held that, "Based on the deeds, the plan, and the circumstances attendant to, and following, the establishment of the Bellevue Height subdivision, the plaintiffs satisfied their burden of proving that an implied easement was intended with respect to the parks. As previously noted, the plaintiffs' deeds all make reference to the plan. While the judge recognized that the plan raises an inference that Luce intended to grant rights in the parks to his grantees, she did not look beyond the reference to the plan in the deeds to the details of the actual plan. The method of the exhibition of the parks on the plan has significance."
The defendants' position was affirmed by the Land Court, where the legal fight began in 2001, and upheld by the state Appeals Court, before the issue went up to the SJC. The SJC decision remanded the matter to the Land Court for reconsideration and a new order recognizing the park lot easements.
Justice Greaney reviewed some of the history of development of Oak Bluffs in his five-page decision, some of which was based on the work of Henry Beetle Hough, the former Vineyard Gazette editor, who died in 1985:
"From the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, religious camp meeting grounds, many Methodist in origin, but also including other denominations, were an underground American phenomenon. Hough, supra at 34. In 1835, the first of these meetings was established on Martha's Vineyard, near the Vineyard Sound side of East Chop. Id. at 35. This congregation grew and became known as Wesleyan Grove. Id. at 63. People of the congregation first slept in tents, which later were replaced with cottages. Id. at 65.
"In 1866, a group of investors formed the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf company and purchased approximately seventy-five acres of land adjacent to the Wesleyan Grove property, bordering Vineyard Sound, and also constructed a wharf to service the property. The Company engaged Robert Morris Copeland, a Boston landscape gardener, to prepare plans of a residential summer community. Copeland created a subdivision plan entitled, 'Oak Bluffs,' in which he laid out the property in small lots and curved avenues. He also designated eight areas on his plans as 'parks.' Each park was substantially larger than any of the numbered building lots, and several had curvilinear boundaries. The park parcels were spread throughout the subdivision. Vineyard historians claim that Oak Bluffs was the first planned residential community constructed in the United States, noting that it preceded Frederick Law Olmstead's 'Riverside' in Chicago by three years.
"Between 1866 and 1880, several other large parcels of land (approximately eight) contiguous to Wesleyan Grove and Oak Bluffs were laid out in subdivision plans and were marketed for sale to summer residents, including the Bellevue Heights subdivision in 1873. Each of these plans incorporated the important aspects of Copeland's design, including numbered building lots, and unnumbered parcels that were larger than the building lots and were labeled as parks or had a similar designation. Apart from Luce's house in the Bellevue Heights subdivision, no other houses were built in the subdivision until 1910. The subdivision was not developed at the density originally planned (5,000-square-foot lots). Many of the houses in the subdivision have been built on combined lots comprising one-quarter to one-half acre. Current zoning requires a minimum lot size of 20,000 square feet. The land involving the parks is currently vacant. Real estate bills were not issued for the parks' land until 1994, and no taxes have ever been paid on the parks."