Two Vineyard residents locked in a bitter dispute with the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation over title to a piece of land in Chilmark can use a tent and keep trailers on the property for now, but cannot do any further clearing or construction, a Massachusetts Land Court judge ruled on Friday.
In a five-page order, the Hon. Alexander H. Sands said he could not be sure from a cursory review of the evidence which of the parties has legal title to the parcel. The ruling is intended to prevent any irreparable harm to the land while the title controversy was sorted out, the judge said.
“Based on conflicting title affidavits and ambiguity in the language involving the record title, this court is unable to make a determination of likelihood of success of either party at the present time,” he wrote.
He also ordered both parties to stop “arguing the case in the press.”
On August 9, Sheriff’s Meadow filed a lawsuit in land court to stop Nisa Counter and Benjamin Ramsey from building on a one-acre lot near Blue Barque Road in Chilmark, which Ms. Counter and Mr. Ramsey bought from a family member in 2010. The land conservation group claims the parcel is part of the Freeman Hancock Woodlot, about 10 acres that was given to Sheriff’s Meadow in 1973 by the late C. Russell Walton. Ms. Counter and Mr. Ramsey say it is not part of that grant.
Based on evidence put forward by Sheriff’s Meadow, the court on August 9 issued a temporary restraining order barring Ms. Counter and Mr. Ramsey from “any further cutting or construction activity on or from entering onto” the property. Last Thursday, August 18, the court held a hearing with both parties to decide whether to extend that restraining order into a preliminary injunction. The ruling the following day was based on that hearing.
In deciding whether to grant a preliminary injunction, the court had to consider both whether Sheriff’s Meadow was likely to win the case ultimately and whether letting Ms. Counter and Mr. Ramsey build on the parcel was likely to cause irreparable harm.
The judge noted that Ms. Counter and Mr. Ramsey filed with the court both a deed and a real estate tax bill from the town of Chilmark in the name of Wilma G. Hancock, the relative from whom they bought the property. Additionally, they presented a July 7, 2011, permit from Chilmark showing the town board of health had granted them the right to put up a tent on the property.
This deed, he said, gave Ms. Counter and Mr. Ramsey “a color of title argument,” adding that their title “appears to have some credibility with both the Chilmark assessors office and the Chilmark board of health.”
The judge said he was granting Sheriff’s Meadow a preliminary injunction in part in order to make sure there was no “cutting, clearing, burning, construction activity or testing” on the land that could hurt the property.
The case is now expected to move to trial.