On September 25, the Mattapoisett Conservation Commission along with nearly everyone else sitting in the town hall conference room learned an important lesson: in-depth title searches are absolutely necessary in the state of Massachusetts.
While the hearing before the commission was a simple Request for Determination of Applicability, the underlying issue was the rightful ownership of a parcel on Angelica Point.
Coming before the commission for a continued hearing was Brian Grady of G.A.F. Engineering, Inc., Town Counsel Matthew Thomas, and Town Administrator Michael Gagne.
At the August 30 hearing, the commission heard the application submitted by the Town to install granite pillars along property owned by the Town in the summer colony on Cove Street.
Claiming ownership of the same property was Al Gentili, who said he had purchased the undeveloped lot some 40 years ago and had been paying taxes on it ever since. On this night, the sea fog would lift and the Town would make a solid claim of prior ownership.
Thomas explained that two states, Massachusetts and Hawaii, still maintain dual property recording systems – one at the state level and one at the county level – a system known as “registered” land, meaning that a title is certified by the Commonwealth and a certificate of title is issued by land court. The registration process includes any and all encumbrances that may exist on land with the Registry District of the Land.
Continuing on, Thomas said, “The state has used registered land since the 1800s.” While admitting that it can cause confusion, he also said that a thorough title search of a deed including investigation into whether or not a parcel has been previously registered with the state is necessary.
“This happens a lot with older deeds,” he stated. “Deeds that are recorded (at the Registry of Deeds) are not applicable.” Thomas said he had no doubt that, if the disputed lot was reviewed by Massachusetts Land Court, Gentili’s deed would be invalidated.
Gentili approached the commission again asserting his ownership, brandishing a letter from the 1980s when he was in discussions with the presumed owners at that time. However, as the nearly hour-long hearing continued, he never claimed to have had a comprehensive title search done on the lot before ‘buying’ it.
Commission member Chapman Dickerson asked how much tax money Gentili had paid over the years to the Town. Principal Assessor Kathleen Costello responded, “Between 1988 and 2017, $2,990.” Dickerson called the mix-up a “raw deal” for Gentili.
Gagne explained that as far back as 2009 the Town knew the land was not Gentili’s; however, the Assessor’s Office at that time had failed to follow-up and that as late as 2012 continued to send Gentili tax bills – bills he had paid.
But Gagne made it clear that the lot in question had been gifted to the Town in 1928.
“On behalf of the Town, we apologize for continuing to tax the property and we are looking at avenues of refund, including interest,” Gagne said. He explained that the Assessor’s Office would seek a refund for Gentili through the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, a process that was already underway.
Abutters from the Angelica Point beach association were in attendance to support Gentili who they described as a good steward of the parcel in question, as well as other lots he owns in the area. They also expressed their concerns.
Association President Sharon Thompson said that although she now understood how the confusion had been created, property owners in the area were concerned that giving greater access to the barrier beach would result in a negative impact on the neighborhood.
The residents of the beach community claimed that illegally parked cars would become a real problem, along with the potential for tenting, camping, bonfires, trash, thefts, and the use of all-terrain vehicles. Gagne said that with proper signage, public access was possible and that any breach in parking restrictions should be reported to the police. He said conservation areas should be accessed on foot or by bicycle. He did not address how the beach area would be kept clean or if portable toilets would be installed on the town’s lot.
The commission approved the RDA, granting a Negative Determination with the caveat that if their decision is appealed or until such time as Gentili’s claim is resolved, no work would take place on the property.
Later in the evening, the Town was once again before the commission with a continued Notice of Intent filing for the construction of a pedestrian bridge, Phase 1B of the Mattapoisett Bike Path.
Susan Nilson of CLE Engineering, Inc. said several governing agencies had yet to comment on the project and that comments from the Division of Marine Fisheries had been modest.
The hearing was continued until October 23.
Also coming before the commission was Jon Connell of Field Engineering representing Leigh Oler, 25 Grandview Avenue, who sought approval of a Notice of Intent for the construction of a new water well and tie-in to public sewer.
Abutter Scott Snow asked that the hearing be continued until it could be determined who would pay for any damage to his freshwater well.
Commissioner Michael King explained to Snow that the permitting of the well and septic systems was under the jurisdiction of the Board of Health, not the Conservation Commission.
The project was approved and conditioned.
The next meeting of the Mattapoisett Conservation Commission is scheduled for October 23 at 6:30 pm in the town hall conference room.
Mattapoisett Conservation Commission
By Marilou Newell