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Sturbridge: Puckett land sold at auction
Southbridge Evening News April 16, 2004
by David Dore
STURBRIDGE – A piece of land in this town that was the focus of a battle between the state and a local family has been sold, but not before some last-ditch efforts to prevent the sale.
Sam and Edith Puckett and their daughters, Jennifer Hager and Ginger Rousseau, led an effort to stop an auction Wednesday of 6.46 acres on Mashapaug Road (Old Route 15), north of Leadmine Road, 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 declared surplus property in 1995. Hubbell was the great-aunt of Hager and Rousseau, whose parents now own the farm.
State Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, D-Barre, and Rep. Reed V. Hillman, R-Sturbridge, filed legislation last week to prevent the state Department of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) from holding the auction until a review of the dispute between the Pucketts and the state took place. The bill would have also prevented the land from being sold until Oct. 1 and given DCAM 120 days to conduct the review.
According to Hillman, the state House of Representatives admitted the bill on Tuesday. It went through the State Administration, Ways and Means, and Third Reading committees that same day ó a process that usually takes several months, Hillman said, and was helped along by Assistant Minority Leader George N. Peterson Jr., R-Grafton. Representatives approved the bill shortly after 6 p.m. Tuesday and sent it to the state Senate.
Unfortunately for the Pucketts, the Senate had a previously scheduled day off Wednesday, Brewer said, so it could not act on the legislation.
Both Brewer and Hillman pointed out that there was no guarantee that Gov. Mitt Romney would have signed the bill because a state agency was advocating the sale.
“It was a long shot because the [Romney] administration was on the other side of this,” Brewer said.
Action at the auction
Meanwhile, the auction proceeded Wednesday afternoon at the Sheraton Newton Hotel in Newton. Six properties, including the land taken from Eunice Hubbell, were supposed to be sold.
As they promised last week, Rousseau, her two sons, and Hager attended the auction, ready to stop the sale by bringing the status of the bill to the attention of anyone who wanted to buy the land.
Hager stood up when the sale began and told the auctioneer, from Yarmouth Port-based Jerome J. Manning & Co., Inc., there was new information she wanted to present.
“He said, ‘Itís not relevant,'” Hager said yesterday. “I said, ‘That’s underhanded.'”
Rousseau claimed the auctioneer “got louder to cover up what she was saying.”
And, Hager alleged, the auctioneer said more: “From the podium, he said, ‘That is a lie!’ He looked at DCAM, and DCAM refused to confirm [the information].”
Hillman e-mailed Hager Tuesday night to tell her the result of the House’s vote, Hager said.
She also warned people in the audience that they might not get back their $20,000 deposit if the land could not be sold, Rousseau said.
“He [the auctioneer] said, ‘Thatís not true. Theyíre lying,'” she said.
He then ordered a police officer to escort Hager and Rousseau out of the room, Rousseau said. They were later ordered to leave the building, so they stayed outside until the auction ended.
Jerry Manning, president of Jerome J. Manning & Co., did not return repeated requests for an interview yesterday to verify the allegations from Hager and Rousseau.
“The way I was forced to handle it was not the way I wanted to handle it, but I had no choice,” Hager said.
A Worcester-based company called Development Management Solutions bought the 6.46 acres for $286,000, said Martha McMahon, deputy general counsel for DCAM. The sale will close within 60 days, at which point the company must provide all of the money, she added.
McMahon did not provide any names of people associated with Development Management Solutions. An Internet search provided no information on the company, and it has an unlisted telephone number.
According to Hagar, Hillman recently told her that the 6.46 acres could be turned into four house lots worth $80,000 each.
Stopping the closing
The Massachusetts Highway Department, then called the 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, MassHighway spokeswoman Judith Forman said last week.
No one from the Hubbell family sued over the $1 price tag, she added. However, 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.
Hager and Rousseau said the legislators would try to amend their bill to stop the closing. Hillman and Brewer met with the Senateís legal counsel yesterday and discovered that because a purchase and sales agreement was signed, a bill to stop the sale ìwould be unconstitutional,î Hillman said.
Both he and Brewer said they would do everything they could to help the Pucketts.
“It doesnít shock me,” Hager said about yesterdayís developments. “Weíll certainly continue to work with Reed and with Steve to work out something equitable … and pursue whatever avenues we have open.”
Hillman said he would investigate a trade Rousseau and Hager have proposed to the state: the 6.46-acre piece of land for 14-28 acres on the other side of Interstate 84 that was part of the Hubbell farm and became landlocked when the road was built in the 1960s.
McMahon said the DCAM real estate office looked at the swap, but she did not know why it was not approved. According to Rousseau, however, the state said it would consider the proposal if the two properties were worth the same – and the town says they are not.
“There’s nothing in state law that would allow us to give back the land to a relative of the family who owned the land,” McMahon said.
“They never said that what they felt was right,” Rousseau said. “They’ve only said, ‘According to law, we can do it.'”
The sale seems to have a left a negative impression on everyone who tried to stop it.
Hager claimed that the state and the auctioneers were “just hell-bent on plowing through the auction” and selling the property. She called the whole experience “one of the most irresponsible actions I’ve ever seen. … They had no willingness at all to do the right thing.”
Said Rousseau: “The whole thing has been disillusioning for me, that the government can do this sort of thing.”
“It seems confiscatory to me,” Brewer said. “I’m not done looking into this in the future. … It has not left a good taste in my mouth.”
David Dore can be reached at (508) 909-4142, or by e-mail at [email protected].