Preservation Group Straps Massachusetts Farm Couple
Bankruptcy Court Appeal May be the Final Chapter
Maria and Joseph Hill are being evicted from their farm on Buzzard's bay in Massachusetts as a final result of being blocked by preservationists from making a small subdivision to make ends meet. One of their last efforts was to bring a conspiracy lawsuit against the local preservation group FORM (Friends of Russells Mills), but the lawsuit was sold dirt cheap as a worthless, high "liability" asset to the defendants by the bankruptcy trustee who is in charge of Mrs. Hill's possessions. The Hills tried to challenge the sale of the lawsuit in bankruptcy court, but the opposition wrongly characterized their conspiracy suit as a SLAPP suit and won. Once the clear owners of a farm appraised at $28 million because of its location, they are out of money.
The Hill family operated a successful dairy farm on 1,100 acres of beautiful land overlooking Buzzards Bay in South Dartmouth, until Joseph Hill had several heart attacks in the early 1980's and the Hill sons went to college, one to study dairy science with the intent to return to the farm. At about the same time, the Hills ran into trouble with their neighbors when they tried to improve the farm. The neighbors raised a furor at town hearings, stopping the Hills' plan to enlarge a pond for their dairy herd and stopping their plan to sell gravel to finance milking equipment.
To preserve the farm, the Hills tried to sell the development rights to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but it was short of funds. Land trusts tried to buy their land at less than 1/10 of its appraised value, intending to combine non-profit and tax funds and develop the land for high-income owners, but the Hills declined.
To meet the high land taxes and other expenses, in 1985, the Hills filed a 200-acre subdivision just before a strict re-zoning plan went into effect. An elite local land preservation group, FORM brought three separate actions in Superior Court to stop the development. While bringing the lawsuits they also sustained the township financially to maintain the Town's resultant legal costs while the Hills were obstructed. The Hills were forced to endure nine years in court in defense of the three proceedings, all of which the land preservation group lost, at great cost to the Hills. The preservation group's lawyer told Maria Hill that the losses were of no concern to the Hills opponents because the object was to tie up her property, making it impossible to obtain mortgage funds, and forcing her to lose the land.
By 1992, the Hills were trying to sell their property, but by the fall the bank holding their mortgage started foreclosure.
The Hills filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy to stop the bank, but were subsequently taken in by an investor who then obtained their mortgage and started foreclosure.
The Hills again filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which ran to December 1995. During 1995, the Hills made a herculean effort at reorganization. At the bankruptcy reorganization hearing, the leader of the FORM movement came to gloat. The FORM organized townspeople and the Town itself to oppose the Hills. Their reorganization effort met with other difficulty, also, and their former investor foreclosed in 1996. The property was auctioned with little public notice, and the investor bought it, bidding so low that he created a deficiency which will wipe out the Hills.
Meanwhile, the Hills sued FORM, its president Charles Straus, and others in 1994 in Bristol Superior Court, charging tortuous interference with advantageous relations, abuse of process, and civil conspiracy. The defendants tried to get the case dismissed as a SLAPP suit (strategic lawsuit against public participation) but the judge denied them in January 1995. The Chapter 11 bankruptcy froze this lawsuit.
Mr. Hill pointed out that this brings the court score of FORM vs Hills to zero to four. FORM may be vulnerable to large damages. FORM contacted the bankruptcy trustee to buy the lawsuit, stating that it was merely a SLAPP suit, and offered $1,000. Marie Hill learned second-hand of the offer and offered 50% more. Straus increased his bid to $2,000 and said FORM will also sue the trustee for legal costs. Mrs. Hill raised her bid to $2,250. The trustee sold the lawsuit to FORM for a mere $2,000. The sale was approved by the bankruptcy judge.
Mrs. Hill appealed to the Bankruptcy Appellate Court. The case was weakly argued. In a ruling handed down in mid-May, the Appellate Court sided with the trustee.
With no funds left to retain a lawyer, Joe Hill is preparing their case pro se for appeal while Marie Hill packs the belongings for a move to an unknown address before the eviction date of September 3.
Carol W. LaGrasse
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