Land trust, family clash over land dispute

Jun 22, 2022

A turf war is brewing between a local family and the Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust as confusion surrounds the sale of agricultural land on Jordan Road.

The property owner planned to sell 16.71 acres to a developer. More than 14 acres are farmland, covered by a state law known as 61A, that provides a tax break in return for keeping the land agricultural. 

Approximately two acres, containing the owners' house, are not covered by 61A.

The sale plans triggered a 61A provision, giving the town a right of first refusal to purchase the agricultural land. Exercising that right, the Select Board assigned it to the land trust this past September.

Recently, the land trust filed a lawsuit against property owners Ken Goes and his wife Lizzie Orcutt, alleging the two “refused or neglected to complete the transfer of the real property” in the months since it made an offer on the land.

The DNRT asserts that the law requires the family to transfer the ownership of the land. Goes, meanwhile, said the terms of the deal were negotiable with the trust as the situation evolved.

The main dispute concerns the disposition of his house, which the DNRT presumed Goes said the trust continued to offer for sale without his knowledge or consent.

According to Mead, the trust believed that it might be helpful to identify a single buyer who could buy the house from the property owner and the land from DNRT, after it was purchased and restricted.

One of the biggest draws of the original deal, Goes said, was that the buyer was content to purchase the house sight-unseen. Averse to strangers in his home, Goes said he was worried that the DNRT would have potential buyers traipsing through his house.

“The only way I would sell this house is if I moved out first,” he said.

Once the town got involved with the surrounding land, Goes thought that the town — and by extension, DNRT — were uninterested in his home, which is not on 61A land.

It’s when the land trust became involved that issues arose. 

Goes said that weeks before the Select Board held a public hearing on the matter, DNRT Executive Director Dexter Mead had contacted him for permission to walk on his 61A land and asked if he was still interested in selling the house.

He said since he had no indication of how the Select Board would vote, he denied the request and ignored the inquiry on the home since it was understood that the town was interested in only the land.

“My house is not part of this deal,” Goes said. “I never told him it was for sale.”

Again, Mead asked Goes about the house, noting that he had spoken to a few people who might be interested in purchasing the home.According to Mead, the land trust’s original understanding was that the property owner was still interested in selling all of their property, the house lot and the Chapter 61A land, as was described in the original purchase and sale agreements.

“When the property owner later notified DNRT that they did not want DNRT to make any effort to assist in selling the house, DNRT immediately honored that request,” he said.

Goes argues that is not the case.

He said that at one point his wife answered a knock on the front door to find a young couple inquiring about the sale of the house. He added that they have also received phone calls from interested buyers. 

Then, on Super Bowl Sunday, Goes said a driver came down his street to stop and ask if he was the homeowner and if the house was available to be seen.

“What made them think this is for sale?” he said. “There were no signs out here.”

When asked, Goes said the driver’s reply was “the [Dartmouth] trust.”

“We felt like we [were] being stalked,” Goes said.

Rather than linger over the status of the house, Goes instead offered the DNRT the sale of a conservation restriction that would permanently protect the land from further development — something he said would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars less than purchasing the property outright. 

“It’s not about the money,” he said.

But Mead said that the conservation restriction was not “financially feasible.”

A conservation restriction, Goes said, would protect the entirety of the land. An outright sale, meanwhile, would allow the DNRT to develop a one-acre section of it — something Mead said would happen when the Select Board granted the land trust the right of first refusal.

“It’s preserving the land by not preserving it,” Goes said. “Last summer, Stephen Taylor of the town’s Planning Board was quoted as stating, ‘The important part is to preserve it, it doesn’t matter who owns it.’ Apparently, the DNRT has not spoken to Mr. Taylor.”