GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

February 1, 2013

Judge opens door on Conomo ownership

By James Niedzinski
Staff Writer

---- — ESSEX — A Superior Court judge has found that a 1991 settlement agreement cited by Conomo Point residents as evidence that they, not the town, own the homes that sit on the town-owned Point property was in fact not a contested issue in that case, and therefore cannot be viewed as “eternally binding.”

Judge Richard Welch, sitting in Newburyport Superior Court, rendered that verdict Monday while denying a motion for summary judgment made by residents in a case citing the 1991 Land Court case as definitive regarding house ownership.

Welch found that whether or not the residents own the houses, was not not crotical in the 1991 Land Court case, according to the case summary.

Court documents indicate both parties entered into a settlement where both sides assumed the plaintiffs owned the houses for the two 10-year leases, which expired in January 2011. The case summary also notes the 1991 settlement may be used as evidence for the plaintiffs about structure ownership, but that the 1991 case is not untrue or controlling.

At the same time, Welch recognized that the lawsuit — identified as Judson Pratt et al. v. the town of Essex, filed in the summer of 2012 when residents sought to clarify ownership of the houses on town land — will have a direct effect on another lawsuit filed against the town by Point resident Nina Walker, who, with other plaintiffs, allege that the second-year rates for the town’s current “bridge leases” and appraisal rates for northern Conomo Point are far too high.

In that vein, Monday’s court proceedings have rolled the two separate cases into one going forward at the request of the Boston-based law firm Kopleman and Paige, the town’s general counsel.

In addition, the denial of the motion for summary judgment, would have expedited the process and bypassed a trial.

In both cases, the plaintiffs were represented by Christopher Weld Jr. of Todd and Weld LLP.

According to the Point residents and plaintiffs, the town has acknowledged the residents as the owners for decades, regardless of the location, and residents challenged a 2010 opinion issued by Kopelman and Paige had alluded to the houses being town owned. While the town owns the land at Conomo Point, the residents there – nearly all seasonal —pay both leases and property taxes for their homes.

Neither Kopelman and Paige nor attorneys with Todd and Weld LLP returned calls to the Times as of press time Thursday. A non-jury trial for the consolidated case is slated for August.

On Monday night, the Board of Selectmen voted to extend leases and purchase and sale agreements to residents in both southern and northern Conomo Point, in order to allow residents more time to properly finance their properties.

In the meantime, a handful of residents have organized to form an ad-hoc group in an effort to move the discussion about Conomo Point out of the court room.

The group, comprised of seven people — some of whom own property at Conomo Point — are aiming to clarify the issues surrounding Conomo Point and are trying to communicate information from one party to the other.

Ray Randall, a member of the group who has previously served on the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee, emphasized that the group does not have any official authority about issues surrounding Conomo Point.

”We are not mediators, we want to clarify the issues,” he said during a phone interview. “Maybe — just maybe — we can make it possible for people to step aside from litigation, just for a moment, and talk face to face.”

In addition, Selectmen asked the group members to help educate the public about issues revolving around Conomo Point.

In addition to Randall, members include Paul Collins, Bob Murphy, David Burbridge, Jeff Soulard, David Lane, and Bill Liberti. To get more information about the ad-hoc group, email Randall at arandall@essexma.org.

Town officials also announced the third and final public hearing about plans for northern Conomo Point, set for Feb. 7 at the Essex Elementary School.

The most recent plans from the design firm Brown Sardina will be posted on the town’s website, and forum content will be based on feedback and input from other forums.

James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at jniedzinski@gloucestertimes.com.