This is a tale of a man living alone in a home in the woods near a pond in the town of Lincoln, Mass., not far, as it happens, from the place where a man wrote a book, published 150 years ago this month, about living alone in a home in the woods near a pond.
Author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, in his 1854 book, “Walden,” described his retreat to nature at Walden Pond, a small glacial lake in the area of Concord and Lincoln, Mass.
“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swatch and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms,” Thoreau wrote in “Walden,” also known as “Life in the Woods.” If life in nature was brutal, he said, he would “publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it.”
Several miles from this idyllic setting that inspired a literary legend, Charlie Fitts, 61, could soon be forced to leave the home at 40 Weston Road where he has lived for a half-century.
Fitts’ story has more to do with the forces of human nature than the forces of nature. After his mother’s death in 1994, Fitts and his sister, Sylvia Napier, were divided on the future of their parents’ property, which consisted of about 14.7 acres of land and a 55-year-old home.
Napier, who is living in London, sold her share of the property to developer and Lincoln native Philip DeNormandie, but Fitts still owns his share. DeNormandie had offered to buy Fitts’ interest in the property, but Fitts declined. “I’m fussy about holding the moral high ground,” Fitts said.
If Fitts had his way, he would remain in his childhood home. “I just assume live out most of my remaining days here. I love Lincoln. Lincoln is simply a town I have loved all my life.” But the fate of the land is not in his hands.
Under Massachusetts law, there is a clause called “petition for partition” that allows the co-owner of a property to force a sale of the property. “And that is what is happening here,” said Brian Connell, a lawyer who has been representing Charlie Fitts for about four years.
An auction of the property has been scheduled for Aug. 19.
A court hearing was held today in which the court-appointed commissioner responsible for the auction questioned whether Fitts is mentally fit to receive money that will be disbursed from the auction. The commissioner called for the court to appoint a mental health professional to evaluate Fitts.
Neil Feinberg, a columnist for the Lincoln Journal newspaper who attended the hearing today, said Fitts’ lawyers expressed “outrage” at this suggestion. Feinberg, who has followed the land dispute for the past four years, said the judge did not order an evaluation but said he would deliberate the issue.
In any event, it appears the auction date will not be delayed, Feinberg said. “That is one thing that came clear to me, sitting here away from the battle. That thing is on a track and will not be derailed.”
View a slideshow of the Fitts-DeNormandie property or view individual photos.
Fitts said he worries that the land may become a development site, and he would rather that a large portion of the property be preserved as an “environmental legacy.” Even if his family’s land is not built out, Fitts said he questions whether the land may be purchased by a developer to serve as a gateway to development on abutting land. “Just the placement of a road would represent a desecration of that land. It would totally desecrate, lay waste to the pristine beauty of the land,” he said.
Lincoln’s Rural Land Foundation, a land conservation group, approached DeNormandie with an offer to buy his half-share of the Fitts property, but he rejected the offer, said Fitts.
“It is axiomatic that we don’t fully appreciate what we’ve been given until we lose it. As a child I bounded through life in what I can only describe as a child’s paradise here at 40 Weston Road,” Fitts wrote in a letter to be published in the Lincoln Journal.
Land adjoining the Fitts/DeNormandie property has been preserved as open space–a conservation effort known as the Lincoln Fields Project–and Fitts said that he’d like his family property to be incorporated in this project. “My property, in co-ownership with Philip, constitutes the connecting link between the immeasurably environment-enhancing Lincoln Fields,’ “Fitts wrote in the letter. “The Lincoln Fields gracing Weston Road are what my sister would call a ‘bijou,’ a treasure to be sought after and found and prized for what it is: a small but lovely emerald necklace awaiting a guarantee of permanence.”
DeNormandie could not be reached for comment. In a letter published in January 2001 in the Lincoln Journal, DeNormandie wrote that he has “no plans to develop the Fitts property…The Fitts land abuts land that my family has lived on for more than 100 years, and my efforts are motivated by a desire to protect it.”
DeNormandie was at the center of an earlier development controversy that swirled around Walden Pond in the early 1990s, when singer Don Henley joined forces with other celebrities to fight area development. This group formed a conservation organization called the Walden Woods Project and purchased land from DeNormandie for $3.55 million.
The Walden Woods Project hasn’t stepped into this Fitts-DeNormandie land controversy, though the issue was publicized in the Boston Globe newspaper.
Bill Wendel, broker for the Real Estate Café in Cambridge, Mass., and a former Lincoln resident, has helped to rally support for Fitts. “It’s a fascinating story that almost reads like a movie script,” said Wendel. Several Lincoln residents have come to Fitts’ aid, and Wendel has dubbed this group “Charlie’s Angels.”
“This invisible network of support appears quietly. They’re not looking for any hero’s button. It’s been a bit of a relay race. No single person has carried the (whole) load,” he said.
Wendel said that he hopes a “win-win-win” solution can be found to the land dispute. “It’s not enough for Charlie and Philip to win–the town of Lincoln has to win as well. I still hope that there is a ‘Cinderella’ script here that will yield a trophy to Lincoln,” he said. He said there may still be a window of opportunity for a pre-auction sale or out-of-court settlement for the property.
It is perfect irony, Wendel said, that the Walden Woods Project is sponsoring a lecture titled, “Stewarding the Spirit of Walden” on Aug. 19, the day that the Fitts-DeNormandie land is scheduled for auction.
Fitts’ lawyer, Connell, said that at this stage it is hoped that “someone goes forward and purchases the property for close to market value.” He added, “This is pretty much it. We’ve managed to keep Charlie in the family home for a very long time. The court has ruled it has to be sold now. It’s a lovely property, with a pond and stream running through it.”
As for Lincoln, Connell said, “It’s quite small. It is a lovely, bucolic, rural center. You’d think you were in about 1890 or 1910.” The town celebrates its 250th anniversary this year.
Tim Higgins, Lincoln’s town administrator, said the Fitts property is situated near the center of town, an area that is “zoned solely for single-family residential use. Much of the property in and around town center is permanently protected open space.” Town residents in 2002 voted to approve a Community Preservation Act that pays for open space, affordable housing, historic preservation and recreation.
Fitts said his family’s property is “something to be kept rather than liquidated.” In concluding his letter, he addressed DeNormandie: “Sometimes people like the two of us, who are the beneficiaries of an extraordinary gift that can only endure if it is shared with others in its intended form, must rise to the challenge of ensuring that the heartbreak of potentially incalculable loss be avoided through a mutual commitment to creating an environmental legacy.”
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