CHATHAM – The Avis Chase cottages in the Old Village, vacant for the past two seasons, may once again host visitors from Philadelphia this summer.
In a decision handed down last month, the Massachusetts Appeals Court reversed a Barnstable Superior Court decision awarding the three properties to the Young Women's Christian Association of Boston. The Boston organization had sued the Young Women's Christian Association of Philadelphia, now operating as the Avis Chase Women's Association of Philadelphia, claiming it could no longer carry out the provisions under which Chase left the cottages to the Philadelphia YWCA.
“It's good news for the Old Village, that's for sure,” said Winnie Lear, president of the Old Village Association. “We really don't want those three buildings empty.”
According to Albert L. Piccerilli, a Philadelphia attorney representing the Avis Chase organization, the Boston Y has filed a petition for further review of the case with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The appeal is not automatic but at the discretion of the court, he added. Attempts to contact Michael Mitchell, one of the attorneys representing the organization, were unsuccessful.
Avis Chase was a Chatham native who lived in Philadelphia, and when she passed away in 1953 she bequeathed the homes she owned at 20, 25 and 52 Water St. to the city's YWCA for use as summer retreats by its members for their “benefit, rest and recreation.” Between 1959 and 2015, hundreds of women spent one or two weeks at the cottages at no or very little cost. Chase, who gave the land now known as Chase Park to the town, also left most of her estate to cover the cost of management and upkeep of the properties.
The Boston Y sued in 2012 claiming that the Avis Chase organization was no longer viable and was unable to carry out the provisions Chase had stipulated in her will, which had named the Boston organization as the successor to Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Y had lost its affiliation with the national organization but had continued to operate as the Avis Chase Women's Association. In January 2015, a Barnstable County Probate and Family Court judge ruled in favor of Boston.
The Dec. 8 decision by a three-judge panel of the appeals court reversed the decision. The appeals court ruling stated that a testamentary trust provided for in Chase's will was dissolved in 1994 following the death of the last annuitant, and the property was granted to the Philadelphia organization in fee simple.
“There is no formal trust in existence and the plaintiff [Boston] has no standing to claim a status as the proposed beneficiary of an implied or resulting trust,” the decision stated. “There is no estate in probate over which the Probate and Family Court can exercise jurisdiction. The amended complaint should have been dismissed in its entirety.”
Piccerilli said in an email that even putting aside the procedural issues, it was clear the property rightly belonged to the Philadelphia organization.
The uncontroverted trial evidence adduced by both Boston and Philadelphia proved that Philadelphia always used the cottages in accordance with the conditions set by Mrs. Chase, and there was no basis to conclude otherwise.
“We are pleased that ownership of the Chase cottages remains in Philadelphia's hands, which is where it rightfully belongs,” he wrote.
“This is great news for the Avis Chase Women's Association and for the Old Village Association,” Joan Horrocks, a member of the Avis Chase organization board and resident of the Old Village, wrote in a Dec. 30 letter to the association. She was out of town for the holidays and could not be reached for further comment.
If the decision stands, the houses could be reopened for members of the Philadelphia organization next summer. Lear said most residents of the Old Village supported the Philadelphia group and questioned whether Boston had taken the action to seize the property due to its value; the three homes and combined 3.6 acres of land are assessed by the town at more than $6 million. All three houses are considered historic – the oldest dates from 1810 – and were the subject of historical preservation restrictions in 2012 which prohibit the demolition of the homes or subdivision of the land.
“I would hope that if it's over, they start using them the way Avis Chase wanted them to be used,” said Lear.