The latest round in a dispute pitting a landowner’s right of access against conservation values played out like a game of cat and mouse in town hall, the courts and the woods of Edgartown last week.
It began a little before 10 a.m. on Friday morning, when Paul Elliott, the president of the Edgartown Meadows Road Association, found workmen cutting down trees along Middle Line Road.
The workmen turned out to be contractors hired by members of the Hall family, who own land adjacent to the road. With a Bobcat and chain saw, the workmen were cutting in defiance of a temporary moratorium placed on the area by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, after previous work done on the same road by workmen for the Hall family.
The moratorium, which prohibits development for 20 feet on either side of Middle Line Road and four other ancient ways in the area, was pending consideration yesterday of a proposal to permanently protect the paths.
Mr. Elliott called the police.
According to an affidavit from the police officer who turned up, Christopher Dolby: “At approximately 10 am . . . I . . . spoke to James Clark of J.C. Trucking who said that his instructions from the Hall family are to cut on the Hall property and to continue cutting along Middle Line Road until it meets up with clearing which the Halls previously did several weeks ago.”
Officer Dolby said he thought the work would likely be finished by the weekend, possibly within the day.
The Edgartown town administrator was called, followed by a call to town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport. And as the trees continued to fall, they began preparing to seek a court injunction to stop the work.
The complaint named the defendants as Therese M. Hall, as trustee for Forsythia Trust and individually; Benjamin L. Hall; Benjamin L. Hall Jr. and Brian M. Hall, as trustees of the Ben Tom Road Realty Trust and individually; and J.C. Trucking and James Clark.
It sought an order to stop the cutting pending a determination by the court on the scope of the public rights involved.
The complaint sets out the complicated legal position relating to the use of the Middle Line Road, which dates back to the early 18th century.
It notes that if the nomination of Middle Line Road as part of a district of critical planning concern and the other roads was successful, a moratorium will automatically go into effect by law.
“The defendants efforts to perform the cutting at this point are designed to preempt and circumvent the jurisdiction of the MVC,” the complaint declared in part.
The complaint sought a temporary restraining order, followed by a preliminary injunction stopping any more such activity on Middle Line Road.
The restraining order was granted by a Fall River superior court judge within a few hours, but that was not the end of it.
On Monday afternoon the Edgartown selectmen took up the matter at their regular meeting.
Town administrator Pamela Dolby reported to the board that all parties had been served with the temporary restraining order, but once that happened Mr. Hall had instructed his contractor to go over and start cutting on Watcha Path.
No trespass orders were served.
But that was not the end of it either. On Saturday afternoon, neighbors confronted the workmen cutting on Watcha Path and called the police. The contractors left but concern remained that they might return to areas not covered by the injunction.
The selectmen once again sought advice from Mr. Rappaport at their Monday meeting, and then authorized him to request an expansion of the original order to cover three more ancient ways: Watcha Path, Pennywise Path and Tar Kiln Path, which also are part of the DCPC proposal.
The request has not been filed yet.
A court hearing on the request for a preliminary injunction was set for Tuesday morning in Dukes County superior court, but the hearing was continued at the request of Ben Hall Jr., who could not attend for medical reasons. A new hearing date is expected to be set soon.
Meanwhile, the residents of Edgartown Meadows also may become involved in legal action against the Halls, because trees between Middle Line Road and Whaler’s Walk, the main street of the subdivision also were cut.
“Ben Hall’s self-determined rights have had a significant impact on the character of Edgartown Meadows, and as a result the Edgartown Meadows Trust and road association are exploring their legal options,” said attorney Marilyn Vukota, who represents the residents.
At press time yesterday the groups had not formally intervened in the matter.
Some residents attended the Monday selectmen’s meeting and provided photographs of the damage to trees along the ancient ways. Some of the trees were estimated to be 80 to 100 years old.
Mr. Hall could not be reached for comment.