The descendants of a late Aquinnah landowner are petitioning the state appeals court to overturn a Dukes County Superior Court’s decision over who owns a small parcel off Moshup Trail. 

Last year, superior court Judge Janet Sanders ruled that Vineyard Conservation Society is the rightful owner of a 5.7-acre parcel that once belonged to Louisa Devine. In March, more than 20 descendants of Ms. Devine appealed the judge’s decision. 

On Tuesday, both the descendants and the land conservation group argued their claims to a three-judge panel of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, the latest chapter in the long-running battle over who owns the landlocked property known as “Lot 240.” 

VCS acquired the lot in 2013, part of a larger gift from Caroline Kennedy and her family’s Red Gate Farm. 

The conservation group previously claimed it owns the lot through two different chains of title that extend back to the original lot partitions of Wampanoag common lands in the late 19th century. The case started in 2017, when VCS sued the family heirs over the property's ownership. 

In court Tuesday, the descendants, through their attorney, maintained that the Dukes County court should have considered more evidence in trying to decipher the intent of deeds dating back to the 1930s and 1940s.

In her October 2022 opinion, Judge Sanders found that Eliza Devine conveyed “all the right, title and interest which I have in the land of Gay Head” to Horace Devine. Horace eventually gave his land to Henry Cronig, using similar language and the chain of title eventually ends with the Vineyard Conservation Society. 

The descendants in the suit say Horace did not have an interest in Lot 240 in 1945, and couldn’t have conveyed it to Mr. Cronig, who went on to be the largest landowner in Gay Head, now called Aquinnah. 

A title that was deemed invalid during the ongoing litigation said land had passed to another party, meaning Horace couldn’t have known he was giving Lot 240 away when he conveyed his land to Mr. Cronig, according to the heirs’ appeal. 

Mr. Cronig also never conveyed the property to anyone, potentially indicating that he didn’t believe he owned the property, the heirs allege.

Instead, more evidence should have been examined to look at the intent of the parties involved, said Jonathan Polloni, the attorney for the heirs.

“There is a need to look outside that one deed,” he told the panel of judges.

Appeals court justice Kenneth V. Desmond Jr., questioned whether the plain language used in the real estate transactions really wasn’t clear enough. 

“Doesn’t ‘any and all’ mean any and all,” the justice said.

VCS lawyer John Willis said the deeds were clear, and the phrasing created a catch-all clause to include all of Horace Devine’s land.

“I think it’s unambiguous,” he said. “‘All my land in Gay Head,’ it just means that you don’t need to go beyond those words to determine what the grantor knew at that time because the language is plain.” 

The oral arguments before the court lasted just under 30 minutes.

The justices will now confer on the case. The panel could uphold or reject the Dukes County court’s decision, or send it back for reconsideration. A timeline wasn’t laid out Tuesday.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated how the litigation intially started. The Vineyard Conservation Society filed the original suit in 2017.