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Landowner, town, trade allegations
OXFORD — Against the recommendations of the town's attorney, the Oxford Board of Selectmen issued an ultimatum on Thursday to a local landowner who selectmen say is flouting the town's rules.
Richard Bennet, who owns the Sagamore Hills Subdivision, says that he wants to obey the rules, but that the "unprofessional" conduct of town leaders is making it difficult for him to identify those rules.
The subdivision, which is on Bennett Lane near the Mechanic Falls town line, has only two homes, occupied by Bennett and his mother, on the 13-lot property.
Town Manager Michael Chammings says that town ordinances require Bennett to bring the road, Bennett Lane, up to town specifications by widening and paving the roadway.
Bennett says that, when his subdivision was approved in 2005, no such requirement existed, and that his property is not affected retroactively by new town ordinances.
"That wasn't a condition of the subdivision approval," said Bennett. "If you look at the signed plan, there's nothing there about paving the road."
Geoffrey Hole, the town's attorney, recommended to the board of selectmen that the rules be changed to accommodate Bennett's wishes.
"Our lawyer is recommending that the selectboard direct Mr. Bennett to apply to the Planning Board to see if they would modify the road condition so that the road improvements, including paving, are not required until he seeks to sell additional lots in the subdivision," reported Chammings to the board.
"Why is he recommending that?" asked Board Chair Floyd Thayer.
"That's what he's recommending at this time," said Chammings. "... He's been brought in, and he's saying, 'well, he's not selling the lots' ... all the other people that put subdivisions in had to build theirs to specs and it is a subdivision. ... It is in violation because he did not build the road up to town specs."
Chammings said that he believed that the town would prevail if it were to bring Bennett to court.
Thayer said that it would be unfair to modify the rules to allow the subdivision to exist.
"What do you say to the other people that played by the rules?" asked Thayer.
Chammings said that he was only there to convey the opinion of the attorney, and that the board could take whatever action it saw fit.
"Don't shoot the messenger," he joked.
Bennett says that the board members are missing the point. Bennett would like to sit down with town representatives who can demonstrate that Bennett's understanding of the law is incorrect.
"There is an ordinance that has been passed since my subdivision was approved that requires that road be paved," said Bennett, "but when my subdivision was made, it wasn't an ordinance."
Thayer said that the matter, which has not been acted on for two years, should have been resolved long ago.
"We let it stretch out way longer than we should have," said Thayer.
Bennett says that he has not been treated fairly by the town.
According to Bennett, the issue has lain dormant for two years, and he was surprised to read in news reports that the matter had come before the selectmen.
He says that he and his wife weren't notified that the matter would be coming before the board, and that the public airing of allegations against him is unfair.
Board member Scott Owens characterized Bennett as someone who felt he was above the law.
"He just blatantly thinks that he doesn't have to ... follow any of the ordinances, obviously," said Owens at the public meeting.
"My character was attacked by the selectmen who were ill-informed about the facts," said Bennett.
"I would say he's got two choices," said Owens at the meeting. "He either follows what the planning board has requested, or he does away with the subdivision. End of story."
The board voted unanimously to deliver an ultimatum to Bennett, outlining those two options.
Chammings suggested that the subdivision could be written out of existence by changing property lines, which would resolve the issue.
Ironically, if Bennett does decide to collapse the subdivision into one larger property, it will cost the town money.
Bennett does not sell properties for a living. He is the executive chairman of Governance Metrics International, a Portland-based company that employs 100 people and monitors risk factors in large corporations.
Right now, Bennett is paying taxes on each individual lot in the subdivision.
"I don't understand why they would be so hostile, when if they win they get less taxes," said Bennett. "I just don't understand."
Bennett says that the relationship with the town's representatives was sour almost from the start.
"When this whole issue first arose, the level of hostility was just shocking to me," said Bennett. "They wouldn't deal with the issue. All I kept saying was, let's find out what the rules actually are. They were having none of it."
Code Enforcement Officer Rodney Smith reported that in 2008, he had written Bennett on behalf of the Planning Board, asking him to finish Bennett Lane.
In 2008, Bennett wrote back that he and his wife Karen "currently have no plans to widen or pave Bennett lane. ... I have been maintaining and plowing the lane myself for the past three years. This year we have added three more inches of crushed gravel to Bennett Lane."
In April of 2009, Bennett appeared before the town's Planning Board, and requested proof that he would have to bring the road up to specs in the event that he sold no subdivision lots.
The meeting's minutes asserted that Bennett should pave the road, but Bennett says that the minutes of a meeting don't trump the actual agreement between himself and the town.
Bennett said that planning board members did ask why he wanted to have the property classified as a subdivision and pay more taxes when there were no immediate plans to sell the lots on it.
"How I misspend my money is my own business," said Bennett. "Just because you get a hunting license doesn't mean you have to go hunt."