By Mike Kirby
Grove Avenue in Leeds parallels the east bank of the Mill River, overlooking the abandoned railbed that may some day become a bike trail to Williamsburg. The houses are mostly older and modest, and their additions look home-grown. It is a narrow street, 1,200 feet long, 20 feet wide, a cowpath to a dead-end. Last winter when things were grimmest and the snow was 50 feet deep, there wasn't room for two vehicles to pass each other without a lot of backing and filling. Beyond are the woods and a well-worn trail that leads down to the river.
The street has the air of an intentional community, and maybe it is. Everyone I met was an environmentalist, knowledgeable and diffident. They loved life here at the edge of the forest. Not much ego here, everyone kept saying that you gotta talk to this person who is the leader, and that person would say you gotta talk to that person. Leadership all over the place. The street is full of young people with computers and sophisticated skills, and they have been meeting with other neighborhood people at the Leeds School since December of l998. They created their own web site - (http://www.yankeehill.org) - which provides a history of their efforts, recaps of city planning meetings and up-to-date news of their struggle.
During the winter and early spring of 2000 a newly-hired planning and engineering team from Heritage Surveys drafted plans that exploited the expanded footprint of the project. In March the developer and his people met with the city's regulatory and public safety agencies. Community people were not invited to this one, which might have showed them where things were headed. On May 22, Atty. Melnik sent a letter to planner Feiden arguing that the city couldn't take the 3.9 acre parcel it was claiming by using the city's eminent domain powers. He had been doing his title research and had determined that the real owner of the parcel was the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. He had contacted that agency, and made some understandings. Click on Melnik letter The letter is stamped received by City Hall on May 25.
Melnik closed on the property for Hanley only 10 days later, but he seems to have been working on acquisition since January, when Heritage Surveys did a map of the land. On April 4, 2000, the developer bought the land from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for $3,136. And this deed was for 5 acres. It included the land under the bike trail, right out to the midpoint of the creek. Did the city assent to this sale and waive its rights? I don't think so. Not in writing anyway. What I think happened is that nothing happened. Feiden was probably wondering how to address this problem when Melnik was sitting down with the FDIC, signing papers. I'm sure Melnik waited until the last minute before memoing the city. Undoubtedly Melnik thought this was a major coup. With a single blow he put a formidable legal roadblock in the way of the rail trail; and he expanded significantly the footprint of the project; and he made a fool of the city, a popular avocation of local lawyers. I don't think the City Solicitor assented to the Melnik taking. The next time we would see the parcel it would be an integral part of the Beaver Brook development.
In June rumors circulated in the neighborhood that Hanley wanted the city land, but no one was giving anybody the straight information. Two months after the acquisition, his attorney Roger Lynch told the Daily Hampshire Gazette he knew nothing about the dispute and "does not know if the developer was interested in purchasing the parcel."
The developer included no easements to the city in the deed. In Melnik's letter he graciously notes that it is his "Brother-in-Law's intention to transfer to the City the railbed and the riverbank portion of the property."
On a hunch I thought I would see for myself how hard it would have been for the city to find out who really owned the land back in l998. I walked into the Registry of Deeds on King Street and asked an amiable woman if she had any old property maps of Northampton. "Sure we do." she said, and led me back of the counter, where she produced two huge books of maps of Northampton properties dated November, l919. It took me only about 10 minutes to find the right map, and there it was, on the river's edge, the right parcel with the book and page listed and the name of the owner, The First National Bank of Northampton. The trail to the present owners at that point would have been clear, since the bank and its successor were the owners, First National Bank became Pioneer National, which became Bank of New England which went under and its assets went to the FDIC.
So this mess has, at its heart, sloppy legal work by the city. Failure
to conduct a title search before city officials filed the land taking.
As of now, a year later, there is no agreement on public use of the rail-trail
land. Hanley could post the land right now, and the city's hopes to connect
its rail trail to the Williamsburg section would be as dead as a doornail.