DEERFIELD – Three residents of Steam Mill Road have filed a lawsuit against the town of Deerfield in Lands Court following the September 22 Selectboard’s decision to halt maintenance of parts of the road.
The lawsuit, filed November 30, asks the court to determine that Steam Mill Road is a public road and that the city must continue to maintain it beyond 41 Steam Mill Road, as it has done 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 surveyors at Easthampton Holmberg and Howe Inc., which is signed by the chairman company and professional land surveyor Emily Holmberg.
The report, which uses an April 1992 document recorded in the Franklin County Deeds Registry, claims that the road was laid out as a public thoroughfare in April 1741, therefore the city must maintain it. The Billings are represented by solicitor 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 was shelved.
In its decision, however, the Selectboard followed a 2019 opinion from City Solicitor Lisa Mead, of Mead, Talerman & Costa LLC, which concluded that this part of the road is in fact a private route. In November 1951, the Selectboard set the public accepted course of the road, which was accepted by residents at the 1952 town meeting, according to Mead’s findings. An unknown owner owns much of Steam Mill Road and the town provided plowing and minor maintenance for years beyond public development, but the Selectboard said it could not use public funds to maintain a private road due to liability issues and the precedent of maintaining all other private roads in town.
“Notwithstanding that the City has undertaken some incidental maintenance of the accepted portion of the roadway,” Mead wrote, “the City is under no obligation to undertake any further maintenance or work or even to plow the unaccepted part of Steam Mill Road.
Pill described Holmberg as a “history sleuth” and said his report provides concrete evidence that the road is a public thoroughfare.
“It’s not just enough to sway a decision,” Pill said. “It proves it.”
Select committee member Carolyn Shores Ness said this week that Brian Winner and Elizabeth Lydon, both of Mead, Talerman and Costa, advised the council against commenting on the complaint. The selection committee discussed the issue in executive session at Wednesday’s meeting.
Pill said it was an “interesting” case because of the abundance of historical records that shed 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 refer to ‘Our Sovereign Lord, the King’.”
The court complaint presents Holmberg’s report, which states that the minutes of an April 10, 1741, meeting of owners of the East Mountain Division contain recommendations for public roads in Deerfield. The Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA) Library holds these minutes and other Deerfield historical records, according to the report.
The minutes outline five roads, of which Holmberg said she believed the “fourth road described and approved at this meeting is Steam Mill Road”. She added that the 1741 minutes also contain the phrase: “Voted to agree that the land therein described is and forever shall be sequestered for the roads of this property”, which Holmberg wrote to validate his opinion. that Steam Mill Road “satisfies the requirement to be designated as a public road.”
Holmberg also examined town meeting records ranging from 1730 to 1970 and found “no record of any part of Steam Mill Road being interrupted”. The 1952 town assembly “made no change in the legal status of any part of Steam Mill Road” which was not included in the 1952 route.
Jason Billings and other Steam Mill Road residents spoke to the Selectboard in October about the decision and brought up Holmberg’s report, but Selectboard members told the group they had to stand by the opinion of Mead. Council members, however, told the residents that they had no intention of letting them hang.
“The report means nothing to me,” selection committee chairman 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 agreed to the route of the road in 1741 and Deerfield has an obligation to maintain it.
“It was legal and legally mandated,” Billings said outside of the meeting. “The city is hiding behind a lawyer.”
A status conference is scheduled for April 19.
Chris Larabee can be reached at [email protected] or 413-930-4081.