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Sturbridge: Family disputes state’s planned auction of land
Southbridge Evening News April 8, 2004
by David Dore

STURBRIDGE ó Members of the Puckett family finally feel as if someone is in their corner in a dispute with the state over a piece of land taken more than 50 years ago.

State Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, D-Barre, and Rep. Reed V. Hillman, R-Sturbridge, filed legislation this week to stop an upcoming auction of 6.46 acres of land along Mashapaug Road, formerly Route 15, the state took by eminent domain in 1952 to build what is now Interstate 84. The land, part of a 144-acre chicken farm owned by Eunice Hubbell, was never used by the state, and was declared surplus property in 1995.

Sam and Edith Puckett, who now own the Hubbell farm, and their daughters, Jennifer Hager and Ginger Rousseau, are leading the fight to prevent the auction from being held. Hubbell was the great-aunt of Hager and Rousseau. Sam Puckett has served as highway superintendent and a selectman in Sturbridge.

The state Department of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) is holding an auction April 14 at the Sheraton Newton Hotel in Newton. Two pieces of land in Sturbridge are up for auction: the 6.46-acre parcel at 540 Mashapaug Road, north of Leadmine Road, and a 6.41-acre piece of land at 680 Mashapaug Road, the former home of a Howard Johnson’s and a gas station.

The legislation filed by Brewer and Hillman would prevent DCAM, which is responsible for managing the state’s surplus property, from holding the auction until a “proper review of the dispute between the Puckett family and the state has taken place,” Brewer’s office said. The bill would prevent the land from being sold until Oct. 1 and give DCAM 120 days to conduct the review.

Massachusetts Highway Department spokeswoman Judith Forman said her agency, then called the Massachusetts Department of Public Works, bought the 6.46-acre parcel for $1 in December 1952 as part of the construction of Interstate 84 and Route 15. The price was “standard practice” before 1964, when the state changed its eminent domain procedures, Forman said.

Before 1964, she explained, people had three years from the date that the land was taken to sue if they felt they should have received more money. After 1964, the state pays what it determines to be the fair market value.

According to Forman, no one from the Hubbell family sued over the $1 price tag.

In 1953, shortly after the state took her land, Eunice Hubbell was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, a fast-moving and deadly disease. She died May 28, 1954.

“She died before she had the ability to pass on the knowledge” about the land, Hager said.

In 1995, Forman said, MassHighway started the “long process” of selling the 6.46 acres. Once it decided to sell the land, the responsibility moved to DCAM.

“We did everything through the proper channels, as in what was law at the time,” she said.

DCAM Deputy Director Kevin Flanigan said the 6.46 acres is property that “could be sold at auction and could be developed … and bring in revenue for the state.”

According to Hager, the state is eager to sell the land because a developer wants to buy it.

“Now, it’s worth something, because it can be cut up into house lots,” she said.

Hillman recently told Hager that the 6.46 acres could be turned into four house lots worth $80,000 each.

Flanigan had no comment on the legislation filed by Brewer and Hillman this week and referred all inquiries to Gov. Mitt Romney’s office. The governor’s office did not return a phone call seeking comment yesterday.

“This is a tragic situation in which a hardworking family, well respected by their community, was forced to cede property so that the Commonwealth could further its goals,” Brewer said. “The [Romney] administration owes it to this family to review the events that took place beginning in 1952 before it goes ahead and sells this valuable land.”

“It is not unreasonable to request a review of this matter prior to the selling of the land,” Hillman said. “That’s what this legislation is about. We are requesting a fair and timely review of the issue before any definitive action is taken.”

Taking pieces of land

According to Hager, who was Sturbridge town planner several years ago, the 6.46-acre parcel was not the first piece of land the state took along Old Route 15.

Starting in 1929, the state seized small pieces of the Hubbell farm, along what was then called Mashapaug Road, or sometimes Union Road. The Hubbell farm had one of the largest chicken farms in the region, with at one time more than 4,000 chickens, Hager said.

The state took three small pieces and a 14-acre parcel, totaling more than 16 acres, ostensibly to straighten out what later became Route 15. The total compensation for the land was $1, Hager said.

In 1966, the state took approximately 50 acres of land from the eastern part of the Hubbell farm for the final leg of the Wilbur Cross Parkway (now called Interstate 84), which runs from New York through Connecticut to the Massachusetts Turnpike.

The Hubbells decided to directly negotiate with the state, without a lawyer, and received about $1,300 for the land, Hager said. A neighbor to the north used a lawyer and received more than $10,000, she added.

Construction of Interstate 84 cut the Hubbell farm in two, Hager said. The eastern portion of the farm, which contains between 14 and 28 acres, is primarily used to hold runoff from the highway. It can only be accessed by climbing over a fence ó and risking arrest by State Police, Hager said.

“We can’t even walk on it,” she added.

According to Rousseau, the town of Sturbridge claims there were 28 acres of the Hubbell farm running along Interstate 84. A surveyor the Puckett family hired said there were only 14 acres.

In 1997, Hager said she was surprised to see a notice about an auction for the 6.46-acre parcel. She called Brewer, and he succeeded in pulling the property from the auction list.

This year, “again, quite by accident,” Hager said, she saw a notice in the state Environmental Register about the sale. Auction notices have also appeared in local newspapers.

The land was part of her father’s garden, Hager said, which he kept up until suffering a stroke almost three years ago.

“This is part of my kids’ growing up, my growing up,” she said.

The Puckett family has proposed a trade with the state: the 6.46-acre parcel for the 14-28 acres. According to Rousseau, the state said it would consider the trade if they were worth the same ó and the town says they are not.

The state never used the 6.46-acre parcel, Hager said. The rest area proposed for the property was instead built farther down Old Route 15.

Rousseau said she has contacted Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey’s office.

“The law is the law, and there is nothing we can do,” Rousseau said, quoting the response she received last week.

If Brewer and Hillman cannot get their legislation passed and signed by Romney by next week, the auction will occur ó and Rousseau said members of her family would be there.

“If it goes through, we’ll be there. We don’t know if it’ll do any good,” Rousseau said.

“This is an uphill battle,” Brewer said. “The original events in this matter occurred over 50 years ago, and now we are counting down the days to auction. Time is definitely against us, but Rep. Hillman and I will do everything in our powers to delay this sale.”

David Dore can be reached at (508) 909-4142, or by e-mail at [email protected]

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