News Feature

Originally published in The Weekly Packet, August 23, 2012
Planning board asks for briefing from Selectmen on Walker Pond property matter

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by Faith DeAmbrose

After a series of legal judgments had been made regarding the town of Sedgwick and land use matters at the former Camp Four Winds property, members of the planning board said at their August 14 meeting they are no closer to a resolution despite having spent more than $30,000 in legal fees. They turned to the board of selectmen for answers, but learned that little movement has been made.

For the better part of five years, the town has been entwined in a legal battle over whether the owners of the former camp property have the legal standing to repair and renovate shorefront cottages that are considered “dilapidated,” according to public officials. The windowless cottages are believed to be below the 50 percent valuation threshold that would allow for rebuilding to occur under the town’s Shoreland Zoning Ordinance. The owner of record for the property is The Maine Trust, Lee W. Patten, Trustee.

Initially the property owner applied to the town’s planning board to renovate the cottages and to add the 30 percent expansion allowed to non-conforming structures in the shoreland zone. That application was denied, and the town’s board of appeals upheld that denial in March 2009. Subsequently the matter went to Hancock County Superior Court where Justice Stephen Cuddy upheld the Sedgwick Board of Appeals in its denial of permits for repair, renovation or expansion of the structures.

Work believed to have been done to the bunkhouses over the past winter has raised ire with planning board members who say it is in violation of the town’s summary judgments. The town’s Code Enforcement Officer issued a stop work order in March to the attorney for The Maine Trust.

Speaking to the issue at present, First Selectman Neil Davis said the town’s assessor had visited the property and is in the process of preparing a report to the selectmen. The assessor “reconfirmed that it is in the same condition,” said Davis, meaning that it is still below 50 percent of its value due to deterioration.

Davis said the town has two options: enter into an Administrative Consent Agreement with the property owner or bring the matter back to the court for a Declaratory Judgment about whether or not the work being done at the camp is in violation of the previous court decision.

“So we are in the same exact place we were in three years ago. We have heard this all before. So, as far as I can see there’s no progress. How do we get progress?” asked planning board member Peter Neill.

Davis made an on-the-spot pro and con listing of what both courses of action would mean for the town. He said that municipal officers could enter into an Administrative Consent Agreement without court action, providing both parties could agree on a way forward. “The municipal officers feel this might not be in the best interest of the town because we are divided,” he said, but then added it would be the cheaper option for the town. Davis also said “there is a lot of distrust” between the town and the property owners, so he was unsure if a solution could be reached without taking the matter back to court.

“A consent agreement will not be consented to unless [the property owners] get what they want. And if that’s the case, we have wasted hundreds of hours and $30,000 in legal fees,” said Neill.

Fred Marston, chairman of the town’s board of appeals, told the selectmen: “We need to get this resolved; we are all becoming a little impatient.”

Davis reminded the board that while they did win the bulk of their case against The Maine Trust, “we did not win it all. They were allowed to repair the structures up to code” as provided in the Shoreland Zoning Ordinance, Section 12(B)2, Repair and Maintenance. (This Ordinance allows, without a permit, the normal upkeep and maintenance of non-conforming uses and structures including repairs or renovations that do not involve expansion of the non-conforming use or structure, and such other changes in a non-conforming use or structure as federal, state, or local building and safety codes may require.) Davis said he believes there are “weaknesses” and “contradictions” in the ordinance in regard to what constituted deterioration and that this case has hit right at the heart of those problems.

Former Selectmen Nelson Grindal disagreed with Davis and said that the contradictions Davis spoke of were not valid and had been “accepted [as okay] by our lawyer.”

In speaking to the matter of repair and deterioration, planning board chairman John Allen said, “repair up to code, doesn’t mean redesign. The building has no windows and they wanted to turn it into a residence with a 30 percent expansion. What’s lost here is that the buildings were abandoned for five to eight years. They are dilapidated and should be razed, frankly.”

“Yet we continue to keep having the same conversation without any way forward,” added Neill.

The conversation regarding the former camp property came to an abrupt end as chairman John Allen asked the selectmen about their recent open letter to the citizens of town regarding “gossip and innuendo” involving the town’s attorney. The letter, which was sent to The Weekly Packet and published in the August 9 issue, came as a surprise to Allen. “I read about this in the Packet and I was embarrassed,” he said.

To that end, selectmen Colby Pert said, “we signed the letter to protect the town because things are being said about our lawyer.”

Pert, in his discussion, also referred to a “gag order” that the board of selectmen instituted to keep municipal officials from speaking about the ongoing matter. Pert did not say how or when such an order was legitimized, but said it was put in place because “week after week” people would come to selectmen’s meetings to ask what was happening in regard to the Patten property. “We decided that we would only talk about it with our Code Enforcement Officer in executive session,” said Pert.

In keeping with his questioning of the board’s propriety, Grindal told the selectmen that in his opinion the board did not have the right to “vouch for the townspeople” with such a letter and did not believe the letter should have left the selectmen’s office without signatures from all three members. Selectman Victor Smith did not sign the letter; Davis said he was absent when he and Pert voted to draft it. Smith never said whether or not he was in favor of the letter being sent. Grindal also questioned the legality of “gag order” but was not given a response.

According to minutes from the board of selectmen’s office dated July 26: “Motion made and voted 2-0 for a letter to be attached to the minutes, with copies to the newspaper, board chairmen, and town attorney [Jim] Patterson.” The letter was attached to those same minutes, with no discussion recorded about how or when it was drafted.

In other business the planning board asked the board of selectmen to call a special town meeting for the purpose of voting on a moratorium on cellular communication towers. Currently, the town is in the process of developing a Wireless Telecommunications Facilities Ordinance, but planning board members expressed concern that a tower application could be submitted before the voters had adopted the ordinance.

Under state law (Title 30-A, section 4356), a moratorium may be enacted by a municipality on the processing or issuance of permits or licenses if it can be proved “that it is needed; it would prevent a shortage or overburden of public facilities; because the application of existing comprehensive plans, land use ordinances or regulations … is inadequate to prevent serious public harm from residential, commercial or industrial development.”

A moratorium can be enacted for up to 180 days, and can be extended by another 180 days by the board of selectmen with a vote at a public meeting.