Newburyport dispute on Coffin Street access returns to the fore | News

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NEWBURYPORT — A dispute dating back about 50 years involving building an extension from Coffin Street to Jefferson Street returned to the public eye earlier this week when the City Council discussed the matter Monday during a closed-door session, according to several sources.

Upon hearing the council was going to discuss the matter in executive session, Jefferson Street resident and former councilor and mayoral candidate Charlie Tontar rallied his neighbors to join him to speak during the public comment section of the council meeting.

The dead-end Coffin Street is seven-hundredths of a mile in length and stops at a stone wall where 11 Coffin St. is above it. To the left of the wall is resident Jane Snow’s driveway, a driveway she said is used by motorists and city vehicles as a turnaround. There are signs alerting motorists not to use the driveway in that fashion but that does little to deter them.

In 2002, Roy Snow, who lived at 9 Coffin St. at the time, asked the city to extend Coffin Street to Jefferson Street. City Department of Public Works Director Anthony Furnari told officials that it would cost $90,000 to build the road. After awhile, the debate died down and remained dormant for decades.

That changed last year when Jane Snow, who now lives at 9 Coffin St., asked the council’s Public Safety Committee to revisit the issue. The issue was then discussed during a joint Public Safety and Planning and Development committee meeting. After some discussion, it was decided to hire an attorney to conduct a title search of the disputed parcel, according to Ward 5 Councilor Jim McCauley.

The attorney, Edward Rainey of Rainey Law Office in North Andover, reported on Dec. 1 that it was his opinion “Coffin Street, south off Jefferson Street, is a private, partially unconstructed way, to which the fee title and easement use rights have not been abandoned by the abutters.”

“On several occasions since 1972, the Newburyport City Council has attempted to both initiate and finalize the layout and taking of said street as a public way. However, there is no evidence of compliance with all of the relevant state statutes which are conditions precedent to a legally effective layout and taking. According, due to such non-compliance, this portion of Coffin Street remains private,” Rainey wrote.

Jane Snow said in a phone interview Wednesday that she approached the Public Safety Committee but adamantly denied she was stirring up a fresh neighbor dispute. She instead called her actions a way of preserving her property rights and added that she had a right to ask questions about the property’s legal status.

“I’m not trying to cause a problem, I’m trying to protect my property,” she said, during the phone call. “I’ve done a lot of research. I do the research and I ask a lot of questions.”

Snow, according to Rainey’s report, provided municipal records to the council dating back to 1972, records she believed proved the disputed property was a public way.

But Rainey shot down her claims, writing “these documents are insufficient, by themselves, to comply with the requirements for layout and taking established by Massachusetts General Law.”

McCauley, who is on the Public Safety Committee, acknowledged the issue could be considered a neighbor dispute. He said the issue brought up by Snow is not unique to Coffin Street and it behooved the council to investigate the matter further to address other potential disputes. He also said the Rainey report did not settle all the issues brought up by Snow and said as recently as 1996, the city counted it as a public way.

Rainey’s report refers to the 1996 claim but again stated it did not prove the property was a public way.

McCauley said the Coffin Street extension issue had been kicked down the road for decades and it was worth pursuing.

“We have to make a decision how to pursue this,” McCauley said, adding that meeting Monday did not result in a clear path forward.

As for why the matter was discussed in executive session, McCauley said it was council President Heather Shand’s idea to discuss the matter without the public being present. As a matter of law, executive session minutes must be made public after two weeks. McCauley did say that any further discussion on the matter should be done in public.

A phone call to Shand was not returned by deadline.

The decision to hold the meeting in excessive session was a main reason Tontar said on Wednesday that he and others spoke at the meeting Monday.

“A secret discussion about seizing our property, give me a break. That’s why we went down,” Tontar said.

Tontar said during the meeting that he would use all his legal, political and financial resources to fight any attempt to seize the property.

Dave Rogers is a reporter with the Daily News of Newburyport. Email him at: Follow him on Twitter @drogers41008.

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