Residents file complaint against town in Deerfield road dispute

  • The view from 41 Steam Mill Road in Deerfield, which the Select Board designated as the end of the public way based on a 1952 Town Meeting vote. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer
Monday, February 07, 2022

DEERFIELD — Three residents of Steam Mill Road have filed a complaint against the town of Deerfield in land court over the Select Board’s Sept. 22 decision to discontinue maintenance on parts of the road.

The complaint, filed Nov. 30, seeks a determination from the court that Steam Mill Road is a public way and the town must continue to maintain it past 41 Steam Mill Road, as it has for more than 20 years. Residents Jamie, Jason and Randi Billings, who reside at 52 and 51 Steam Mill Road, based the complaint on a report Jason Billings commissioned from Easthampton-based land surveyors Holmberg and Howe Inc., which is signed by company president and professional land surveyor Emily Holmberg.

The report, which uses an April 1992 document recorded in the Franklin County Registry of Deeds, claims the road was laid out as a public way in April 1741, and that therefore the town must maintain it. The Billingses are being represented by Attorney Michael Pill of Green Miles Lipton LLP in Northampton.

Pill said in an interview that Jason Billings delivered Holmberg’s report to Deerfield officials in January 2020, but it was put aside.

In its decision, the Select Board followed a 2019 opinion from town counsel Lisa Mead of Mead, Talerman & Costa LLC, which found that portion of the road is actually a private layout. In November 1951, the Select Board laid out an accepted public layout of the road, which was approved by residents at 1952’s Town Meeting, according to Mead’s findings. An unknown person owns much of Steam Mill Road and the town has provided plowing and minor maintenance for years beyond the public layout, but the Select Board said it cannot use public funds to maintain a private way due to liability issues and the precedent of maintaining all other private ways in town.

“Notwithstanding the fact that the town undertook certain incidental maintenance of the accepted portion of the roadway,” Mead wrote, “the town has no obligation to undertake any further maintenance or work or even plowing of the unaccepted portion of Steam Mill Road.”

Pill described Holmberg as a “history detective” and said her report makes a concrete case that the road is a public way.

“It’s not only enough to sway a decision,” Pill said. “It proves it.”

Select Board member Carolyn Shores Ness said last week that Brian Winner and Elizabeth Lydon, both of Mead, Talerman & Costa, have advised the board against commenting on the complaint. The Select Board discussed the matter in executive session during its Jan. 26 meeting.

Pill said this is an “interesting” case because of the abundance of historical documents that shine a light on what life was like in the 18th century.

“This stuff can become like a time machine,” Pill said. “You start reading Massachusetts documents where they reference, ‘Our Sovereign Lord, the King.’”

The court complaint features Holmberg’s report, which states the minutes of an April 10, 1741 meeting of the Proprietors of the East Mountain Division contain recommendations for public roads in Deerfield. The Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA) library contains these minutes and other historical Deerfield records, according to the report.

The minutes describe five roads, of which Holmberg stated her opinion that the “fourth road described and approved at this meeting is Steam Mill Road.” She added the minutes from 1741 also contain the phrase, “Voted to accept that the land therein described is and shall be forever sequestered for roads in this property,” which Holmberg wrote validated her opinion that Steam Mill Road “satisfies the requirement for it to be designated as a public way.”

Holmberg also reviewed Town Meeting records ranging from 1730 to 1970 and found “no record of discontinuance of any portion of Steam Mill Road.” The 1952 Town Meeting “made no change to the legal status of any portion of Steam Mill Road” that wasn’t included in the 1952 layout.

Jason Billings and other Steam Mill Road residents spoke to the Select Board in October about the decision and brought up Holmberg’s report, but Select Board members informed the group they needed to stick with Mead’s opinion. Board members did, however, tell the residents they were not intending to leave them hanging.

“The report doesn’t mean anything to me,” Select Board Chair David Wolfram said in October. “You may not agree with (Mead’s) opinion and that is your right, but we are bound by what we are told.”

Jason Billings told the Greenfield Recorder in October that the report shows the town accepted the layout of the road in 1741 and Deerfield has an obligation to maintain it.

“It was legally and lawfully prescribed,” Billings said outside the meeting. “The town is hiding behind an attorney.”

A status conference on the complaint is set for April 19.