When I launched From the Seasonally Occupied Territories earlier this summer, I hoped that it might eventually become a vehicle for telling other people’s stories as well as my own. On Monday a story fell into my lap. It’s a story that deserves, and is beginning to get, wider telling. With no further ado . . .
Nisa Counter and Ben Ramsey are totally committed to the Vineyard, and to each other. Nisa moved here with her family at the age of three. For years she has run Nisafit, a popular fitness business. Ben, an independent contractor, is the nephew of Billie and the late Herbert Hancock. If you’ve lived on the Vineyard for any length of time, you’ll recognize Herb Hancock’s name. (If you don’t, click the link.) The Hancocks have owned land in Chilmark for at least 200 years. Ben’s “Uncle Herbie” worked hard to make it possible for the children of longtime town families to buy land in Chilmark after wealthy off-islanders had pushed market prices far beyond the reach of island working people.
Year-round rentals are hard to come by on seasonally occupied Martha’s Vineyard, and those of us who have them generally pay serious bucks for modest accommodations and feel lucky to have them. Ben and Nisa were no exception. But they wanted the stability of homeownership before they started to raise a family. They saved enough to buy a buildable lot from Ben’s Aunt Billie. As in many rural areas where European-style land ownership goes back centuries and many land transfers were informal or unrecorded, Chilmark titles can be a tad cloudy. They paid a lawyer to undertake a lengthy and expensive title search and established to their satisfaction that this parcel was indeed part of the Hancock lands. Billie then transferred her rights in the property to the couple with a quit-claim deed.
Nisa and Ben didn’t have enough money yet to build a full-size house. Instead they obtained a town “tent permit” for a small, low-impact dwelling with solar panels and a composting toilet. They would live off the grid while saving money and preparing to build a real house. Construction started earlier this year.
Already the couple knew that the wealthy summer people up the road wanted them gone. They are Bob and Rona Kiley; Bob Kiley is a big name in public transit planning, though he washed out in his attempt to save London’s “Tube.” Nisa’s father, Thomas Counter, played a key role in the 1970s in the struggle to protect island land and affordable housing from run-amok development. In a letter to the Vineyard Gazette, he has described the couple’s attempt to make friends with their new neighbors:
“I went with my daughter to meet the neighboring landowners to explain that their driveway, which crosses Nisa and Ben’s lot, would not be threatened and that Nisa and Ben’s home would be planned so as to not interfere with their enjoyment of their property. It was a mistake. Instead of offering us a cup of tea, they immediately began a battle by canvassing the neighboring landowners to resist the ‘Youth Lot’ [a lot sold at lower-than-market price to make it possible for longtime renters and the children of town residents to buy property] and this has ended up with Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation bringing suit against Nisa and Ben and an order to not enter their land.”
That’s right: There is now a restraining order out that forbids Ben and Nisa to set foot on their own land. Later this week the couple must go to Boston to see if they can persuade a judge to lift the restraining order long enough for them to remove Ben’s tools, their building supplies, and their other belongings from the property.
What, you may ask, is the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF)? Good question. SMF, a private conservation organization, is an abutter to the Ramsey-Counter property. For more than 30 years, they said nothing while the Hancocks were assessed for and paid taxes on the land. As Ben wrote recently: “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.”
What makes this especially ironic is that SMF has long had a policy of accepting donated properties with dubious titles. Donors receive hefty writeoffs for land that might not survive the title search necessary for a legitimate sale. SMF resisted all of Ben and Nisa’s attempts to accommodate and negotiate, including formal mediation. Now they have sued Nisa and Ben, demanding that they prove ownership of the land in Land Court. The couple do not have anything like the money necessary to contest SMF’s claim, so it’s beginning to look as though SMF and the surly rich neighbors up the road will get their way.
Nisa says she has given up hope that she and her husband will ever be able to raise a family on the land once owned by Ben’s family. Knowing what she now knows about her prospective neighbors, she isn’t sure she even wants to live there. They’ve found a year-round rental in Vineyard Haven; they love their landlord, but the place is only 250 square feet. Nisa’s outraged at the behavior of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation. Do SMF’s well-meaning supporters know that the conservation group is using their contributions to hire expensive lawyers to bully two islanders off their land?
Feel free to express your opinion to SMF director Adam Moore at 508-693-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Watch the island newspapers for further developments. If you’re on Facebook, the community page Youth lots vs. tax breaks will bring you updates (almost) as soon as they happen.