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Illegal dumps targeted in Buckfield
BUCKFIELD — "The problem," says Town Manager Glen Holmes, "is that one man's junk is another man's treasure."
Holmes is talking about what has become a hot-button issue in Buckfield.
"Illegal junkyards" is how the town refers to residential yards littered with excess automobiles, rusty rain-barrels, heaps of tires, old furniture, and various past-their-prime items.
But the residents who own the properties in question have their own term.
"That's just my stuff," said Roger Bennett, a Buckfield resident whose property was cleaned up in August after a six-year court battle with the town.
The Buckfield selectboard recently asked Holmes to drive every roadway in town, and document Buckfield properties that might be deemed illegal junkyards.
"The selectman have asked me to do some photography to identify areas that we believe may be in violation of state law," said Holmes. "Depending on what they see in those photos, they will determine if we will move forward and how to do so."
The issue is a facet of a larger zoning discussion that has proven to be divisive in the region.
On one side are the property owners who deeply resent being told what to do on their own land.
On the other are equally angry community members, who feel that an individual's yard shouldn't be allowed to become a property value-threatening eyesore for the town.
The debate came into sharp focus at last week's selectboard meeting, when two citizens began a heated discussion that abruptly degenerated into raised voices and chaos.
Allen Young, whose property may come under scrutiny due to a new effort of the selectboard to identify problem areas, asked the selectboard pointed questions about the Bennett case.
"How much did it cost the town in legal fees? Just legal fees to clean up Roger Bennett's property?" asked Young. "How much did the town pay to have it removed? Who received payment? Who was paid for the sale of the job? Is there any kind of a grandfather clause to those junkyard laws? How much did it cost the town to harass Roger Bennett for I don't know how many years now?"
"We weren't harassing him," responded Selectboard Chair Eileen Hotham. "He actually went to court, and we actually gave him a lot of breaks."
"Why did you take him to court, on that little half-acre lot?" asked Young.
Hotham recognized Lucille Allen, another citizen in the audience.
"I've been in Buckfield 55 years," she said. "For the first 50, there was a great deal of pride in the way this town looked. And I don't think there is any issue that needs to be discussed about cleaning up and making this town have the pride that it had originally."
Allen said that the town should continue its campaign of cleaning up people's yards, forcibly if necessary.
"If people cannot dispose of things properly so that it does not affect the value of the town, then they should be taken to court, and they should be taken care of," she said.
Young started to respond.
"I've been living here for 65 years," he said.
His point was lost, because Lucille Allen spoke over him, repeating "Then take some pride in the community! Then take some pride in the community!"
Hotham and Selectman Robin Buswell ended the public argument by quickly adjourning the meeting.
Holmes acknowledged that the Bennett court battle was a costly one for the town, but he hopes that going to court will be the rare exception.
"Even though it was very expensive, we hope that others will be cooperative, particularly when they see that we take it seriously," said Holmes.
The last time Holmes did this kind of work was six years ago.
"They identified three then," he said. "Two were cleaned up in short order."
The third was Roger Bennett's property, which led to a six-year fight.
Holmes said that the town might decide to set aside a fund to enforce the state law against resistant homeowners.
"My guess would be to set aside $10,000, and then replenish that fund if necessary," said Holmes.
If the selectboard decides to move forward, they will put an item on the town warrant.
"It's just a matter of, do we continue down this road?" said Holmes. "Some people feel we need to have some pride in the way the town looks."
Town leaders did present an ordinance to the town that would have made it easier to clear out the junkyards, but the town rejected the measure.
Holmes said that, while he is checking every yard from the road, the number of problems are minimal.
"I think we're talking about a handful of properties," said Holmes. "I can think of probably five or six off the top of my head."
Holmes said that he didn't want to just pursue the highly visible junkyards.
"I'm trying to be fair to everyone," he said. "I don't want to just focus on the ones on the main drag."