A title dispute between the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation and two Vineyard residents, both sides believing they own the same piece of property in Chilmark, moved into the Massachusetts Land Court this month after the foundation sued the two year-round residents who had begun to clear the land and build on it.
In August 2010 Nisa Counter and Benjamin Ramsey bought their lot near Blue Barque Road in Chilmark from a family member for $9,000. The approximately one-acre lot lies on or adjacent to the Freeman Hancock Woodlot, about 10 acres that was given to Sheriff’s Meadow in 1973 by the late C. Russell Walton. Mr. Walton had acquired the land from the late Priscilla Hancock, according to documents filed in the land court and a statement issued by Sheriff’s Meadow.
Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation executive director Adam Moore said yesterday that the foundation has been in discussion with Ms. Counter and Mr. Ramsey about the issue for the past 11 months. He said a title search conducted by Sheriff’s Meadow attorneys showed that the foundation owns the land Ms. Counter and Mr. Ramsey bought as a youth lot from Mr. Ramsey’s aunt, also a member of the Hancock family.
“We believe we own the whole thing and we have tried to demonstrate that through title work,” Mr. Moore said.
“We didn’t reach an agreement [with Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter] because we are confident in our title work. We believe we own it and we can’t make a deal to sell off part of it,” he added.
In a lengthy posting on Ms. Counter’s Facebook page over the weekend, Mr. Ramsey said he and his wife paid for their own title search with a different outcome. “Our title search found that our land was very clearly defined as a separate lot from the Freeman Hancock Woodlot . . . Nobody can argue with stakes and stones still marking corner bounds to two distinct properties . . .” he wrote in part.
But Mr. Moore said when Ms. Counter and Mr. Ramsey began to clear the land and build a wooden tent on it this summer, with a permit approved by the town in June, the foundation had no choice but to go to court.
On August 9 Sheriff’s Meadow filed a complaint against Ms. Counter and Mr. Ramsey in the Massachusetts Land Court; the foundation has also obtained a temporary restraining order to bar them from further building or clearing on the land. A hearing is scheduled to be held in land court in Boston on Thursday on a request for a permanent restraining order.
Meanwhile, the dispute grew emotional over the weekend with Ms. Counter and Mr. Ramsey posting social media messages saying Mr. Ramsey’s family was assessed for and had paid taxes on the land, which his late uncle, Herbert Hancock, had claimed and used. “Sheriff’s Meadow allowed my family to think that they owned it, and to pay taxes on it, until we actually tried to get a building permit and put up a modest house. Then and only then was it worth proving that they owned it,” they wrote.
The couple created a new Facebook page labeled “Youth lots vs. tax breaks,” arguing their situation evidenced a clash between “the two major issues here, affordable housing and conservation.”
They also wrote: “First, be careful who you donate your money to on this Island, there are plenty of other good causes. Second, before you support your neighbors, know if they are good neighbors or not.”
In a written statement issued yesterday, Mr. Moore said:
“In 1973, C. Russell Walton gave the Freeman Hancock Woodlot off Blue Barque Road in Chilmark to Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation in order to conserve the land.
“In August of 2010, Benjamin Ramsey and Nisa Counter received a deed from a third party to a portion of Freeman Hancock Woodlot, for which they paid $9,000.
“Through a series of letters, telephone conversations and meetings over the past 11 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. Sheriff’s Meadow consulted with title experts, who performed an extensive review of the title, tracing it back to the early 1800s. The land was owned by members of the Hancock family from 1828 until 1962, when Priscilla Hancock sold it to C. Russell Walton, who later gave it to Sheriff’s Meadow.
“Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter do not accept that they have no ownership. 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.”