Old Lyme ― A Tantummaheag Road homeowner has likened Russian’s annexation of Ukraine to efforts by the town to assert ownership of a strip of land bisecting his property.
The land in dispute along Lord’s Cove has been long been enjoyed by residents and visitors for purposes such as launching kayaks or watching the storied murmuration of the swallows over Goose Island. It is said by town officials to have been in public use since the 1700s.
But George Frampton, who with his wife purchased 12-19 Tantummaheag Road in late 2020, has since made clear his position that the town doesn’t own the landing between the two parcels and never has. He called it “fake news” for local officials to suggest that historical and ongoing public use and maintenance of the property gives the town the right to his land.
Frampton referred to the unpaved strip from Tantummaheag Road to the cove as his “back driveway.” Locals know it as Town Landing.
Residents from neighboring Coult Lane have advocated that signs be put up identifying the site as town land, and officials have slowly been moving in that direction.
Frampton at last Tuesday’s Board of Selectmen meeting said any argument that the town can cite historic use to justify a current right-of-way must be settled in court. He likened the situation to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that historic interests in the smaller country give Russia the right to take it over.
But Frampton said Putin didn’t go to court – “he went to war.”
“In the U.S., you can’t go to war first,” he said. “You have to go to court, otherwise the right doesn’t exist and it’s not enforceable.”
But Frampton said settling the issue before it gets to court would be ideal.
“Nobody wants litigation,” he said, identifying himself as a prolific litigator. “Litigation is horrible.”
Frampton’s extensive resume includes roles as an assistant special prosecutor with the US Department of Justice during the Watergate hearings, deputy director and chief of staff for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s investigation into the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, and an environmental lawyer. He is currently a distinguished senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Climate Policy Project at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.
He has submitted to the town a dozen copies of a seven-page memorandum plus a six-page appendix filled with what he described as the facts.
“The discussion recently seems to us to be moving in a direction of either obfuscating some very important facts, which are going to be essential if we’re going to settle this, or either not disclosing them to the public,” he said.
First Selectman Tim Griswold, in accepting the copies and opening discussion later in the meeting, said there are obviously “two opinions on this road.”
“Either we’ve got to try to come up with something in the way of an agreement,” he said, before pausing to add “or what.”
“It’s going to be, I guess, our call,” he said.
Frampton told The Day there will be no signs placed on his property without permission or a demonstrated legal basis.
Selectmen almost two years ago approved a recommendation to create a designated parking area for two vehicles and install signage marking it as public. Frampton has told The Day it was the town’s insistence on creating two parking spaces that spurred him and his wife to do the title search and historical research to find out if the town actually had claim to the property.
Selectmen during Tuesday’s meeting unveiled a draft version on paper of a sign with white lettering on a blue background announcing “Tantummaheag Town Landing” with hours from 8 a.m. to sunset. Two more signs would be placed on either side of the driveway: one with a town seal and an arrow pointing to the right, the other with the words “Private Driveway” and “No entry” pointing to the left.
Griswold and Town Attorney Jack Collins met previously with Frampton at the man’s home, according to Griswold. He said Collins met with Frampton on another occasion as well.
Members of the Board of Selectmen and Harbor Management Commission have heard complaints about visitors being denied access to the landing since shortly after Frampton moved in. Selectmen in early 2021 approved a recommendation to create a designated parking area for two vehicles; install signage marking the entrance, closing time and parking area; and specify that no changes to the vegetation could be made.
The spot in the winding, residential neighborhood is accessible from an entrance that looks like a private driveway with stone pillars on either side. Inside is Frampton’s house to the left; to the right is an unpaved path as wide as a car leading to the water.
Collins at an August selectmen’s meeting read a prepared statement into the record. He acknowledged a preliminary title search and investigation by a consultant revealed “no evidence in support of the proposition that Old Lyme owns the subject property,” but instead offered another justification for the town’s claim.
Collins said deeds and maps show the landing was established “as a highway or a roadway” in the 1700s, with “ongoing public use” since then.
“There was no evidence uncovered to date which suggests the town has abandoned such uses,” Collins said.
A September report from the consultant, attorney Elton B. Harvey of the Farmington-based Isaac Law Offices, said land records going back to 1701 showed the intent to create one or more public ways from what is now Route 156 to the cove. He pointed to the landing in dispute as part of the resulting highway that has been used to access the cove ever since.
Frampton at Tuesday’s meeting said the highway – identified as Tantummaheag Road in modern maps including the town’s online geographical information system – does not enter his property. He said official maps from federal, state, local and quasi-public agencies since the mid-1950s have all shown the same thing: the properties along the road are private.
He told selectmen he found it unlikely a judge would “throw out three-quarters of a century of definitive government mapping that Tantummaheag as a public road does not go into our property just because some people in Old Lyme think that it should.”
Frampton also cited a memorandum from a 1931 surveyor to selectmen as evidence that the town’s original right-of-way to the cove no longer existed.
A copy of the memorandum, provided by Frampton, said documents showed “beyond question of doubt” that there was in the early 1700s a highway between two parcels owned by different members of the Lord family. But the surveyor said he could not provide a plan “defining exactly the lines of Town Landing.”
Frampton said the surveyor in effect admitted “that he had not mapped the original right of way but gave the town what he hoped would be a new right of way to the river.”
Harvey in his report argued the mapping done in the 1931 survey is the best evidence of the location of the Town Landing. He quoted from the surveyor’s memo when he said the map, “while in a way arbitrary, takes into consideration all the available evidence.”
Room for compromise
Griswold, in agreeing to a meeting with Frampton, told fellow selectmen “the devil is in the details” when it comes to discussion on issues such as parking and getting kayaks in the water.
Selectwoman Martha Shoemaker on Wednesday said she hopes there is room for compromise.
“I think it is time for both parties to sit down at the table together and negotiate out some type of agreement,” she said. “We’re all neighbors, we’re all townspeople, we have to get along.”
She declined to comment on the arguments laid out by Frampton because she attended the selectmen’s meeting virtually due to sickness and had not yet read through the paper copies he provided.
Griswold last week told The Day residents have been protective of public access to the cove over the years.
The former owner of Frampton’s property in 2007 floated the idea of swapping more than 12 acres she owned on Mile Creek Road for the small, town-owned parcel. She withdrew the proposal amid backlash from Coult Lane residents who said the trade would increase her waterfront holdings along the Connecticut River while depriving dozens of homeowners, who do not own waterfront property, full access to the river.
Griswold said officials had to move the town meeting on the swap from Town Hall to the Catholic church down the street to accommodate the crowd of residents.
“They came with the pitchforks and torches and said, ‘Hell no, over our dead bodies,’” he recalled.
He said he’s taking his cues on how to proceed from Collins, the town attorney, and has not been advised so far that the town lacks a legitimate argument.
“So until somebody says that, I don’t think we can say that we’re in a bad spot,” he said.