, Newburyport, MA

March 19, 2013

Questions surround future of former Grange land

Officials say deed restrictions on property now moot

By Jennifer Solis

---- — WEST NEWBURY — Local historian Susan Follansbee is crying foul over a legal opinion selectmen have relied on to inform their recent discussions regarding town land on Garden Street that at one time belonged to the local agricultural grange.

The debate over who controls the land where the Garden Street Fire Station now sits stems from a larger discussion over whether to close the secondary station and instead have all fire personnel report to the Central Station on Main Street when responding to emergency calls.

In a letter to selectmen earlier this month, Follansbee objected to Town Counsel Michael McCarron’s statement that under state law, a deed restriction on the land is now moot because too much time has passed.

“Perhaps legally it is true that restrictions are voided after 30 years, but I feel that it would not be ethical to retain ownership of the property without first asking if the Grange wanted their land back, in case the town should cease to use the property for municipal purposes,” Follansbee wrote.

Although never a Grange member herself, many of Follansbee’s family members were quite active in the organization and her aunt, Emily Poore, is a longtime member who currently holds the leadership position of “ceres” in the group.

A deed filed under Book 5533, Page 727 at the Essex South District Registry includes specific language about the restriction. Put in place when the neighboring Laurel Grange #161 gave land to the town for a new fire station back on May 20, 1968, it stipulates that the parcel would revert back to Grange ownership if the town “ceased to use the conveyed portion for municipal purposes.”

The issue was further clouded when a member of Laurel Grange voiced his concerns about newspaper reporting on the controversy at a recent Grange meeting. The club’s leadership responded that what transpired between the organization and the town back in 1968 was an even land swap with no stipulations attached, an opinion that seems to contradict what appears in the deed. Under the agreement, the town received a portion of the Grange’s land at the front of its lot and the Grange got a back portion from the town that was primarily wetlands.

But because legally the statute of limitations is 30 years for this type of deeded restriction, McCarron contended the point is moot and the town now owns the land outright.

When the question was raised a few weeks ago during a discussion with the Board of Fire Engineers, selectmen said they believed the town had fulfilled any obligation it had to the Grange in regards to the land deal. They stressed at the time that they had not heard from any residents who felt that the town’s decision to hold onto the land was unfair to its neighbor.

After briefly discussing Follansbee’s letter, Selectman Dick Cushing last week asked to have it added to a file of other letters he said the board has received regarding the recent discussion over the potential closing of the fire station.

At the same meeting, selectmen also received a letter from Sandra Capo supporting the adoption of a hunting policy on town-owned land. Selectmen have tasked a committee of hunters to develop a policy for bow hunting deer, which the board will then discuss and possibly adopt. Capo favored the idea because her youngest son contracted Lyme disease and she feels it is a matter of public safety.

Also, fire Chief Scott Berkenbush has asked to surplus three pieces of equipment: a Fisher 8-foot minute-mount snowplow and two generators. He said the items are “beyond their serviceable life. When selectmen wondered whether the snowplow might be of use to the highway department, Public Works Director Gary Bill saidd, “If I wanted it, I wouldn’t have given it to them in the first place.”

And Finance Director Warren Sproul told selectmen that it is possible the budget sequestration now in place at the federal level could impact the town’s bonding and indebtedness for the Page School renovation project to the tune of an additional $3,200 in supplemental assessment.