Why we are intervening in the Little Neck case
As parents of students in the Ipswich Public Schools we have taken the extraordinary step of intervening in Essex Probate Court to stop the proposed sale of Little Neck. We believe that the settlement reached behind closed doors between the Feoffees, the School Committee and the Attorney General over the holidays violates basic legal principles, is contrary to the will of voters expressed at Town Meeting, and would cause irreparable harm to the future funding of Ipswich schools.
William Payne left 36 acres at Little Neck in trust for the school children of Ipswich when he died in 1660, making it now the oldest community land trust in the United States. He left the land in the hands of trustees known as Feoffees and instructed in his will that the land be held in trust “forever” for the benefit of the Ipswich schools and that it “never be sold.” Pursuant to a state law that’s been in force since 1765 those Feoffees now consist of four self-appointed members, who serve for life, and the three eldest members of the Ipswich Board of Selectmen. The land is currently rented to 167 cottage owners at Little Neck and the rent levels and collection of rental income is supposed to be managed exclusively for the benefit of the schools.
In practice, Little Neck has been so poorly managed that the Ipswich schools have not received any funding from the Trust since 2006. While concerns about the Feoffees’ governance have been raised off and on by Ipswich citizens for decades, mismanagement of the Trust in recent years has grown to extraordinary heights. The Feoffees have routinely held meetings in secret with no minutes kept. There are no restrictions on conflicts of interest, such as Feoffees paying fees to themselves or renting lots to family members. The three Selectmen who serve as Feoffees to provide greater public accountability have been routinely excluded from all major decisions. The Feoffees do not operate as a legitimate tax-exempt organization and have never filed the charitable tax returns required by law. To make matters worse, the state Attorney General – who is responsible for oversight of charitable organizations in Massachusetts – has never used her authority to intervene despite having knowledge of these abuses for at least a decade.
The recent settlement is an attempt to settle a lawsuit the Feoffees had filed against the Attorney General, Ipswich School Committee and Ipswich School Superintendent seeking permission to “deviate” from the requirements of William Payne’s trust and sell Little Neck to the current tenants. The voters of Ipswich spoke loud and clear in opposition to that suit and have appropriated well over a half million dollars, at three separate town meetings, to help the School Committee defend the integrity of the Trust. In support of that effort, more than 700 Ipswich citizens took the unusual step of signing an amicus curiae legal brief last January and joined the School Committee in successfully opposing a motion by the Feoffees in probate court to expedite the sale. Unfortunately the School Committee reversed its position in late December and voted by a narrow 4 to 3 margin for a settlement that allows Little Neck to be sold on terms that are extremely unfavorable to students and taxpayers.
For a number of reasons we believe this settlement would shortchange current and future Ipswich school students, who are the true legal beneficiaries of the Little Neck Trust.
First, a sale of the land means that Ipswich public school students would never benefit from future appreciation in the value of Little Neck. It has never been shown that one-time sales proceeds provide more economic benefit to the public schools than keeping the land in trust and collecting annual rent that keeps pace with the market.
Second, a sale is completely contrary to the terms of William Payne’s will, and Massachusetts law simply does not allow deviation from the requirements of a trust where it is feasible to respect the decedent’s original intent. The proposed land sale would get the Feoffees out of a jam, because the tenants were suing to stop rent increases, but the Feoffees never presented a shred of evidence to the probate court showing that it is infeasible to continue holding Little Neck in trust.
Third, despite good intentions and a new board of trustees there is considerable danger that a large cash trust would be squandered on short term school needs or eroded through poor investments, rather than managed for the long term benefit of the schools. Little Neck once represented just 18 percent of the assets held by the Feoffees to support the Ipswich schools. Other parcels of land were sold by the Feoffees many years ago (which required the approval of the Massachusetts Legislature) and yet the cash balances and investment returns from those asset sales are now nowhere to be found.
Fourth, the proposed sale would end the rental restrictions that have always kept Little Neck as a summer colony, which would create a windfall for cottage owners and a likely cost burden on the Ipswich schools whenever existing summer cottages are converted to year-round homes.
Finally, the settlement would give the Feoffees immunity for their prior actions even though the statute of limitation on claims against the Feoffees had previously been waived by the court.
There is a due diligence process that probate courts are supposed to follow before they allow the explicit requirements of a trust to be violated. The probate court has that responsibility regardless of whether the parties to the case have proposed a settlement and the judge’s decision-making process creates a record of evidence that can then be reviewed, if necessary, by higher courts. So far that process has not been followed because a settlement was reached before any significant evidence regarding the Little Neck Trust had been presented to the court.
Like many others we had hoped and expected that the School Committee would continue to defend the Trust on the town’s behalf, but recent events have compelled us to take action on our own. As school parents we have now petitioned the probate court to make us a party to the Little Neck litigation as representatives of the beneficiaries of the Trust. Our goal is simple: to bring this decision out into the open and to ensure that the Little Neck Trust provides the greatest possible financial benefit for current and future Ipswich public school students, consistent with the terms of William Payne’s bequest.
A community decision of this magnitude – abandoning a land trust that has been in continuous operation for 352 years – deserves a public debate and an up-or-down vote at Town Meeting. It should never have been decided by a single vote at a closed-door meeting. This issue should be brought before Town Meeting at the earliest possible opportunity and in the meantime we will continue this fight as long as it remains the clearly expressed will of the voters.
Any citizens who would like to support our effort or would simply like more information are encouraged to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew and Susan Brengle, Peter Buletza, Douglas DeAngelis, Joanne Delaney, Cara Doran, Tammy Howe, Carl Nylen, Jacquelyn and Jonathan Phypers, Kenneth Swenson, Robert Weatherall, Jr., Jason and Michelle Wertz, and Clark Ziegler