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Legal bills are the cost of doing business for Island townsIsland towns annually budget thousands of dollars to defend their towns and public officials in the event of a lawsuits. Legal costs are both unpredictable and in some cases, significant.
The legal actions towns face may range from actions brought by town employees that may be handled by an insurance company to lawsuits filed by wealthy property owners challenging the decision of a town board.
The wheels of justice can grind slowly and often expensively for Martha's Vineyard taxpayers. The cost of litigation, which can span years, even decades, can place a strain on town budgets.
In some special cases, voters may be asked to appropriate additional funds to pay that year's legal bills. There are few options except to pay.
In some legal disputes the emphasis is on compromise in order to avoid a costly legal battle. But in many cases, such as where town bylaws have been challenged, local officials say they have little room for legal bargaining and must defend the town despite the expense.
"The cost to the community in terms of its character, would be much greater," said Camille Rose, chairman of the Aquinnah planning board and the board of selectmen. "It's a compromise of your entire regulatory structure, you can't compromise, and have it have any integrity."
"It's part of the day-to-day business of government," said Arthur Smadbeck, Edgartown selectman. "You just have to be resolute. We have obligations to uphold the various decision that our boards make."
Currently, all six Island towns are engaged in various current court cases, some of which never rise to public notice. The list includes land battles, permit battles, and a fight over dockage.
A dispute over landlocked property off Moshup Trail has spanned two decades and remains in litigation. (See accompanying article.)
A yacht owner sued the town of Chilmark and selectman Riggs Parker, when he was unable to rent a slip for more than 14 consecutive days during the busy summer season, in keeping with harbor regulations. Paul DeJesus of Reading filed suit in Middlesex Superior Court. A judge recently rejected the claim. Mr. Dejesus has filed notice he will appeal.
Also pending in Chilmark is a dispute over the use of a house for a commercial enterprise. The home owned by Jackie Carlin is rented out for weddings. A trial is scheduled to begin next week.
A dispute between the members of the Hall family and the town over clearing trees is at the heart of an ongoing legal dispute. The Hall family claims the right to clear trees in order to gain access to family property. The town sought, and won, a temporary restraining order to stop the clearing. The court is now considering whether to issue a preliminary injunction. The MVC is considering whether to declare the disputed land a district of critical planning concern.
Edgartown's decision to seize a parcel of land by eminent domain landed in court. The town took the land for future expansion of a cemetery. Florida developer Paul Donovan had previously reached an agreement to buy the land and planned to divide it into four house lots. He has appealed the land taking, contending that the town undervalued the property.
A group of mostly seasonal Chappaquiddick residents fought for three years the town's granting of special permits for four affordable housing lots. After a protracted round of appeals before various town boards and state courts, the project was recently upheld by the Massachusetts Appeals Court.
The developers of a 40-B affordable housing project off Edgartown-West Tisbury Road known as Cozy Hearth are appealing a zoning board of appeals decision that limited the development to nine homes.
A small building project sparked a very large and extended legal case when Joseph Moujabber built a 3-story "garage," complete with balconies and sliding doors, on his property on Seaview Avenue Extension. Neighbors contended the garage violated zoning bylaws. The town eventually ordered the garage demolished, but recently a superior court judge vacated that order while related parts of the case are ironed out. The judge also vacated an order of the Copeland district review board, which denied a certificate of appropriateness and ordered the board to conduct a new round of reviews. The town has now referred the entire project to the Martha's Vineyard Commission, which has declared the Copeland district a district of critical planning concern.
Town officials say they are dealing with several personal injury cases, but are not facing any protracted legal battles.
William Graham appealed his 2003 and 2004 assessments to the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board, claiming that the town's assessments were unfair. He owns seven properties totaling 235 acres off Lamberts Cove Road, assessed at $51,116,700. By Mr. Graham's calculations, his properties were worth only $20,240,000.
In June 2006, the ATB decided in favor of the West Tisbury assessors, ruling that Mr. Graham's property tax assessments for 2003 and 2004 were 99 percent accurate.
Last month, Mr. Graham filed an appeal with the Massachusetts Court of Appeals.
At one point West Tisbury voters refused to pay legal expenses totaling $255,000. Voters later reversed that decision. The lawsuit became a prominent campaign issue in the race for selectmen and assessors.
A trial is scheduled next week to decide issues of public rights to Rogers Path, a one-mile stretch of dirt road near the intersection of State Road and North Road. A group of landowners contends the road is a private way.