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Ipswich residents appeal to preserve land trust

Final appeal seeks to save 1660 land trust

JOHN BLANDING/GLOBE STAFF

One hundred and sixty-seven cottages dot Little Neck, a rocky peninsula that is at the center of a decade-old legal drama.

A legal battle over a wind-swept summer colony rising over Crane Beach is reaching a conclusion, as Ipswich residents mount a last-ditch fight to stop the $32.5 million sale of the property and prevent the breakup of a Colonial-era land trust that was set up to benefit the Ipswich public schools.

The residents contend that the sale of property on what is known as Little Neck violates the terms of a will written in 1660 by William Paine, a wealthy English settler and merchant, who stated the land should never be sold, and that rents collected benefit Ipswich schoolchildren.

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One hundred and sixty-seven cottages dot the rocky peninsula. A group of Ipswich residents argue that the 352-year-old land trust should not be broken, and that the sale price is too low for prime waterfront land.

“We feel that the court hasn’t actually made any findings on whether it’s OK to break this will,’’ said Douglas DeAngelis, an Ipswich parent, and one of 14 residents who filed the appeal.

“The way we look at it, is the land is an asset of this trust, but it’s never been professionally managed. We don’t agree that it no longer can be productive for the schoolchildren at Ipswich,’’ Douglas said.

In December, Essex Probate Court Judge Mary Ann Sahagian approved the settlement calling for the sale of the land.

On Feb. 6, the judge denied the residents’ motion to block the settlement and a request to allow the residents to be a party in the lawsuit.

“We didn’t feel then, and don’t believe now, that our interests have been represented,’’ DeAngelis said in an interview.

A motion for an injunction to stop the sale of the land, and to recognize the residents’ standing in the case, is pending before Appeals Court Justice Peter Agnes. A court spokeswoman said there is no date set for a decision to be made.

“It would be harmful to everyone if this land were allowed to be sold, before our appeal winds its way through the courts,’’ said Catherine Savoie, an Ipswich resident, who is also a lawyer with the Boston law firm Posternak Blankstein & Lund.

Little Neck is managed by board of trustees known as the Feoffees of the Ipswich Grammar School. Feoffees is an antiquated term for “trustee.’’ The board has until this week to file its response to the appeal, said William Sheehan, a Danvers lawyer representing the Feoffees.

“We believe the agreement is fair,’’ he said in an interview. “We’re pleased with what has transpired in the lower court. We hope the appeals court agrees.’’

The state attorney general’s office, which approved the settlement in December, declined comment, a spokeswoman said. The attorney general’s office had oversight because the land is held by a charitable trust.

The Appeals Court filing is the latest twist in a decade-old legal drama over one of the nation’s oldest land trusts. In 1660, Paine hand-wrote his will in old English, stating that the “the little neck of land . . . is to bee and remaine to the benefit of the said scoole of Ipswitch for ever . . . and therefore the sayd land not be sould nor wasted.’’

Today, residents own cottages on the Little Neck, but rent the land from the Feoffees. But cottage owners and the Feoffees have long been at odds over how much rent should be charged. A separate lawsuit over that dispute was filed in Superior Court in 2006. Since then, no rental income has been given to the Ipswich schools.

The December settlement would end all the litigation. Little Neck would be sold to a condominium association, with the proceeds from the sale put into an endowment to benefit the Ipswich schools.

Jeffrey Loeb, chairman of the Ipswich School Committee, last week had little to say about the latest appeal. “I am obviously disappointed,’’ he said.

Residents also contend that the $32.5 million price tag is too low. Estimates prepared for the town place the value of Little Neck as high as $42.5 million. But after expenses and debt is paid, residents fear the schools could end up with only $25 million.

“If the property stays in trust, it will be worth a lot more money,’’ said Clark Ziegler, a resident who is also a housing expert. “This is a very bad deal for the Ipswich schools . . . and it’s completely inconsistent with William Paine’s will.’’

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.
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