My September 10 post about Nisa Counter and Ben Ramsey’s struggle to defend their small piece of Chilmark against a land grab by a Vineyard conservation organization was titled How the Story Ended . . . That ellipsis at the end was intentional: unlike a period (“full stop” as the British call it), an ellipsis is open to other possibilities. Ben and Nisa had decided that they didn’t want to mortgage the next several years of their lives to raising money for and paying legal bills, with no guarantee that their quit-claim deed would be recognized at the end of it. What sane working person would?
But the idea that the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF) was going to win because it has connections to power and money in the bank didn’t go down easy. As Nisa said in a phone conversation yesterday (Saturday, October 8): “We didn’t have money to pay a lawyer — but it didn’t make sense to let it go.”
So last Thursday, October 6, Nisa and Ben — unrepresented by counsel — went back to Boston and scored a moral victory in Massachusetts Land Court: Ron Rappaport, one of SMF’s lawyers, has excused himself from the case. How is this significant? Let me count the ways. If you don’t live on Martha’s Vineyard, you probably don’t recognize the name. If you do — you hear it all the time. Rappaport’s middle name should be Ubiquitous. His firm, Reynolds, Rappaport, Kaplan & Hackney (partner Jane Kaplan is RR’s wife), is counsel to five of the island’s six towns and the M.V. Land Bank Commission, among other things.
The disputed parcel of land belonged to the Hancock family. The late Herbert Hancock was Ben’s uncle; Ben and Nisa bought the property from his widow, Billie. Ron Rappaport was the Hancocks’ estate lawyer; he valued the family properties when the estate was being settled. More, he was a pallbearer at Herb Hancock’s funeral. Given his prior relationship with the Hancock family, plenty of people were disgusted with his decision to represent Sheriff’s Meadow in their suit against Hancock kin. It might not be a literal conflict of interest, but it still smelled pretty sleazy.
So Ron Rappaport’s withdrawal from the case looks like a three-bagger for the home team. Sure, he’ll most likely be sharing his inside info with SMF, but if public pressure wasn’t a factor in his decision I’ll eat the Greek fisherman’s cap that I’ve been wearing for nearly 30 years.
Thursday’s court hearing was a “settlement conference.” It wasn’t meant to reach a settlement; the objective was to ascertain what the opposing parties were willing to do to reach a settlement. Sheriff’s Meadow offered Ben and Nisa $10,000 for their land. They declined the offer. Ben and Nisa pointed out that SMF’s counsel, Diane Tillotson, had violated the order of Associate Justice Alexander Sands that the parties refrain from debating the case in the press. Tillotson then produced a sheaf of photocopies from Nisa’s personal Facebook page and Youth Lots vs. Tax Breaks, the FB page established to share information about the case. (In the interest of full disclosure: I’m a co-admin of the Youth Lots vs. Tax Breaks page.)
Judge Sands called online media a “new frontier” and didn’t seem to think that it fell into the same category as traditional news media. Nisa pointed out that she couldn’t control what her friends posted on either her page or the Youth Lots page — or in independent blogs. Since neither the Martha’s Vineyard Times nor the Vineyard Gazette has shown any interest in telling Ben and Nisa’s side of the story, they seem to be in compliance with the judge’s order.
Also noteworthy: When they filed their suit, Sheriff’s Meadow seemed willing to let the legal process drag on ad infinitum. They had the money to sustain a prolonged legal battle; their opponents didn’t. Time = money, right? Originally they wanted a court date in December 2012. Now they pushed for this December, 2011. Too soon, the judge thought, and set a date for late April 2012.
Why the change in SMF’s strategy? Based on scuttlebutt and hearsay, I can guess: Plenty of people have been calling SMF director Adam Moore to express their displeasure with SMF’s tactics, and he’s having a hard time getting his work done. Others have spoken with SMF board members, and some have said they won’t contribute to the organization’s work unless the suit is dropped. And more people are linking this case to other less than stellar decisions in SMF’s recent past. Director Moore, for instance, seems to be living in a house that SMF had built for him — on a donated property within a stone’s throw of the ocean whose donor intended it to be used for agriculture. (Moore is not a farmer.)
Time, in other words, is no longer on the side of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation.
Judge Sands urged both parties to agree to mediation, and furnished a short list of qualified mediators who specialize in property disputes. Ben and Nisa spent nearly a year trying to get Sheriff’s Meadow to negotiate or agree to mediation. SMF, thinking it held the whip hand, preferred to sue. Now they have 10 days to give the judge their answer.
Nisa and Ben will be leaving shortly for Panama, where Nisa’s family lives and Ben has work for the winter. They’ll be back in the spring — or sooner, if SMF agrees to mediation.
Ellipses rule. It ain’t over till it’s over . . .