Land Grab

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.

Building a wooden "tent"

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 moore@sheriffsmeadow.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.

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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16 Responses to Land Grab

  1. Pat Newick says:

    In response to Adam Moore’s letter, what does the designation “Youth Lot,” have to do with this dispute? Ben Ramsey’s aunt has the right to sell her property for any price she chooses. As a former Vineyard resident of 17 years, I was disappointed this summer to realize how much the island is pricing everything, land included, into the stratosphere where young people, and locals will no longer be able to afford living there. The trend was starting when we left in 1989, and is definitely not getting better. I almost laughed out loud at the food prices!! You’ve got to be kidding……
    Pat Newick

    Like

  2. Jackie Mendez-Diez says:

    I posted this under Doug Cabral’s editorial in the MV Times today.

    Dear Doug Cabral,

    The news report is biased in favor of SMF. It is without proper investigation of all the allegations. Nelson has published incorrect facts– including, but not limited to, falsely stating that the couple had no permit. They had a permit to construct a camp without water and electricity. I didn’t know any of this until it appeared on Facebook. There are many questions raised. Why didn’t either newspaper ask Ron Rappaport what his role was with Billie Hancock’s land transfer to the couple, since he is now attorney for SMF? Has Mr. Rappaport in the last year approached Mrs. Hancock for her permission to proceed representing the SMF? For that matter, why didn’t anyone interview Mrs. Hancock at all? It was her land that she sold to the couple. Why isn’t the SMF lawsuit (no alternative, my foot) put into perspective with some background on their years of expensive (for the SMF donors) legal battling with their (wealthy) Quansoo-Gate neighbors? SMF managed to reach a settlement with those folks, angering the other abutter, the Land Bank. It looks like SMF folds or compromises when they are up against people who have the money to fight back, despite what is actually fair and just. Why should they fold when they are up against people who can’t begin to defend themselves financially? Public social networking is a very reasonable way to get the story out, especially when un-moneyed people are being steamrolled by arrogance, wealth, and an unwillingness to negotiate… and lop-sided reporting and censorship by the Times.

    This sad story does nothing to improve the tarnished reputation of the SMF. SMF has come too far from the ideals from which it was originally intended and organized. From eco-hypocrite keynote speakers at their lavish fundraisers for the wealthy, to the Tuthill Preserve degradation, to Quansoo-Gate, to the legal outlet for wealthy landholders to avoid estate taxes— it is not a pretty picture. Intelligent readers recognize an unjust bullying by a moneyed, powerfully backed organization … and they don’t like it. Intelligent donors will not like it either. What a shame that you chose to censor Tom Counter’s excellent letter in support of his daughter and son-in-law. I had never even heard of Nisa and Ben until this week, but it took 5 minutes of my time to discover the irony that it was Tom Counter who was architect planner for the Wakeman Center, now the home office of… Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation. But despite this irony, the lesson should be one of the connectedness of us all. We are a small island and if we bother to scratch the surface, we will find more reasons for commonality than for arguing. I urge Adam Moore to rethink his position that a lawsuit is SMF’s only alternative. Even a cursory glance at the history of this conservation organization shows that there are better options to settling this dispute. Poorly researched pieces, such as Nelson Sigelman’s front-page op-ed-masquerading-as-news report this week, do you and Islanders no service. Please do a better job in the future so that you can indeed provide your readers with reliable published reports.

    This is being posting this to Facebook,Twitter, and Susanna Sturgis’ excellent and active blog on this subject. The “good-old-boy” censoring network just does not work anymore.

    Yours truly,
    Jackie Mendez-Diez

    Like

  3. Sharon Stewart says:

    Not the same thing, but here’s what happened to us. We had a cottage for many years. One year my dad did not receive the assessment for property taxes. My dad, being who he was, didn’t think of paying the taxes that year. So when we went up to the cottage the next spring, there was a legal notice posted on the door, and a new lock. My dad went to get legal help (his pronouncement at the time was that “the law is an ass”). Long story short — a person on our lake was the cousin of the county tax clerk, and they had a scam going. Just sayin’.

    We did eventually get our cottage back, but this event ruined our summer and beyond.

    Sharon in Ottawa

    Like

    • Arrgghh. Did other people who got scammed actually lose their cottages? Sounds like the kind of situation (not unlike the one here) where if you can’t afford the legal bills, you’re SOL. I’d love to know what’s gone on between the conservation group and the rich neighbors. There are stories floating around, plausible but unsubstantiated, about relationships and the timing of certain events — but given the abysmal state of investigative reporting on Martha’s Vineyard, I doubt we’re going to see any rigorous follow-up.

      Like

  4. Maria says:

    This is an outrage! While reading this blog I felt as if I were in another country. How could this happen? Perhaps the millionaires that abut the Hancocks’ family property have Mr. Moore in their back pocket. If the Hancock family has been paying taxes for this land for all these years, I’m sure they didn’t pay out of pure pleasure to own nothing. That just wouldn’t make sense now would it? Here’s an idea…why don’t the millionaires who are squawking move THEIR house. Are they life-long residents or is this their summer home? Why do they call the shots? Does money truly speak that loudly? I can’t even imagine building my home to have someone tell me, “This isn’t your land and to get your tools and take your house down while you’re at it.” I’m so sad for this couple, who I don’t even know. Mr. Moore; how do you sleep at night knowing you can screw a hard-working couple out of their home on a technicality? Are you human? You call it a squabble?!?! A squabble?!? Really – I see it more as you are playing with people’s lives. Think about that and grow a conscience…

    Like

  5. Margo Swezey says:

    Susanna,
    Thank you for your most excellent contribution to this puzzling and distressing series of actions against Nisa and Ben. If only, as Sam Low writes, “all the facts” could come out and be presented in a fair and open manner ! SMF seems to be doing all it can to ignore/avoid/sidestep much of that.
    Their uncaring and bullying tactics are such a disappointment ! Why is this small parcel of land that they have ignored for lo these many years suddenly so vitally important ? So important that they are bound and determined to ride roughshod over a young couple just to stake a claim for their land coffers. This is not what preserving the island is all about!
    Adam Moore’s answers to questions about this issue are always very schooled and smooth , and he manages to answer around certain specific questions. He states that they “had no choice” but to choose the Land Court route. They did have other choices but refused to consider any of them.
    I would like to think that the outcome of all this could be for the benefit of all, but SMF seems to have lost the ability to even consider working together for the common good.

    Like

  6. Hal Davis says:

    The Vineyard Gazette account, plus comments:

    http://www.mvgazette.com/article.php?31562

    Like

  7. susan robinson says:

    Those of us who don’t live near MV would hear of this no other way, and we need to know it. Plus you give us an important part of MV life at odds with the mainstream view.

    Like

  8. Sam Low says:

    From SMF

    Dear Sam,

    The squabble is purely a title dispute. The land is not a youth lot and has
    never been designated as a youth lot. The couple is claiming to own land
    that we firmly believe we own 100% of the interest in. When they started
    building on the property we had no choice but to bring this matter to the
    Land Court.

    Sincerely,

    Adam R. Moore
    Executive Director
    Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation

    Like

    • SMF had plenty of other choices. Ben and Nisa have been trying to negotiate and/or get them to do formal mediation for more than a year. Most likely SMF has chosen Land Court because it has something like $5.8 million in the bank and Ben and Nisa are island working people of modest means. SMF policy has long been to accept donations of properties with clouded titles. If I had a few million bucks to spare, I’d love to force them to clear title on every damn one of their 1,997 acres.

      Like

    • stacy says:

      Shame on you Mr. Moore! What you so cavalierly dismiss as a mere “squabble” is actually much more significant and certainly not just a simple title dispute. If as you claim, the land in question is 100% SMF property, how do you explain the collection of paid property taxes for all of these years by the family? It seems quite suspect then that if you truly believed your interest in the land to be legitimate, that no formal action to resolve the questionable title was ever executed until the defendants began construction. Your claim then would have the public believe that there is no communication between the SMF, the registry of deeds and the collector of taxes, which of course is obviously untrue since for many, the entire reason for land donation to SMF centers around significantly beneficial tax considerations for the property owners.

      How on earth then, in a rational universe, could a situation like this exist? My question then centers on the notion of potential fraud, collusion and lack of transparency between SMF, the the registry and tax collector. If during the course of many years, funds were collected and credited, they must have originally been assessed, how is that then possible if there are questions as to the actual property lines? What precisely was assessed? On what cost basis? How was a tax bill ever sent to people who allegedly don’t own the property? Where were all of those funds applied?

      If those funds were wrongly collected, who will then be making restitution, along with interest and punitive damages to the family who has been paying property taxes on land owned by SMF and which SMF has been reaping returns on that added value to their portfolio? Where is the transparency, professionalism and accountability for an alleged conservation organization which benefits from tax considerations, enjoys public funding and trades on the prestige of concern for preserving and protecting the land without any oversight or mandatory due diligence in terms of properly surveying and accurately reporting their entrusted holdings?

      Like

      • Benvindo soares says:

        Stacey’s comments are prophetic in nature . Mr. Moore and frivolous attitude around a couple pursuing the american dream … is downright disturbing!! ” The Squabble” … what a narrow-minded statement … these folks are fighting for title to a land they believe to be theirs….. Haha, a “squabble” …Wars have been started for much less — MR MOORE or Less.

        Like

      • Susan B. Anthony says:

        Right on….exactly what my questions were going to be….now let’s get answers…

        Like

  9. Sam, thanks. I just made an edit at Nisa’s suggestion: Billie Hancock’s title to the property was still “cloudy,” which isn’t uncommon when a parcel has been transferred within the same family for going on 200 years. Ben and Nisa tried for almost a year to negotiate with SMF, including an attempt at formal mediation. SMF has instead chosen a strategy, a lawsuit and Land Court, that Ben and Nisa can’t afford to pursue. Thomas Counter’s letter is worth reading in its entirety, especially the part about how conservation organizations worked these things out in the 1970s. I hope it’ll be published in the Gazette but for now it’s available on the “Youth lot” Facebook page.

    Like

  10. Sam Low says:

    I wrote to the SMF about this – and the Gazette – and posted the Youth lot site on my Facebook feed.

    Looking forward to all the facts coming out and if this is as you presented Susanna – they deserve all our support. (I have no reason to believe this is not the way it happened, but as a journalist, like you, I need to do my own research)

    thanks for calling our attention to this

    it does have the ring of truth…

    Like

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