Island building can stay, judge rules

By Stephen Betts | Sep 18, 2017
Courtesy of: John Stevens A building the town of Vinalhaven contends is too close to the shore was allowed by a judge to remain.

Vinalhaven — A small waterfront building that has been engulfed for years in a legal dispute between its owner and the town can remain.

But no one can live in the structure, a judge ruled.

Justice Daniel Billings ruled Sept. 11 in Knox County Unified Court on a land-use complaint filed in 2013 by Vinalhaven against John Stevens over a small building located about five feet from the shore on Tip Toe Mountain Road.

He ordered Stevens to pay a $5,000 civil penalty to the town, plus court costs and reasonable fees for the town's attorney.

But Billings also chided the town's former code enforcement officer, who had overseen the town's interaction with Stevens over the past several years.

"Though the court did not find code officer's testimony persuasive and was not impressed with her approach to her duties, the evidence falls well short of what is required to meet the difficult burden necessary to establish a claim of selective prosecution under Maine law," Billings ruled.

Hearings on the land-use case were held before Billings in January and February 2016.

Stevens is a former professor who operates a business called Visible Assets Inc. He also has worked on marine-related projects, including developing a tag that could be attached to lobster traps to measure the temperature of the water at the bottom where the traps are located.

Stevens said he stores equipment in the building, including submersible devices that can travel on the ocean bottom.

The town, however, contended the building was nothing more than a guest house built illegally too close to the shore.

Stevens told the court he received a permit from the Planning Board in 2003 to expand an existing building by 30 percent. He maintained that state law allowed him the option of building a new structure that would be no larger than the existing structure if the existing structure was dilapidated. There was approval for a slab and for the building to be connected to the existing sewer system.

The landowner said he consulted with the then code officer throughout the process and received his approval to build the 21-foot-by-19-foot building in 2006 that is there now. Contractors who worked on the project testified at last year's  hearing that the code officer from 2006 — who died before the court hearing — was aware of what was occurring.

The building that was completed in 2006 has been taxed by the town each year since, Stevens told the court.

A sink, shower and toilet were added in 2007.

Stevens' attorney, Christopher MacLean of Camden, had argued that the problem began in 2011 when Jacki Robbins was hired as code officer. He said the case involved the abuse of government power when the code officer audited his property for permits because of personal animosity.

Robbins disputed that contention last year.

“I didn’t even know the guy,” she said last year. “Code officers may not be the most popular person when citizens are found to have committed a violation.”

Billings concluded, however, that the evidence during last year's hearing did not show the town was aware of possible land-use violations back as far as 2006.

Stevens is prohibited from using the structure for residential purposes, and the restriction will be filed in the registry of deeds, under the judge's ruling.

Stevens said he had stopped allowing the building to be used as living quarters after the town first raised its concerns.

MacLean said his client was pleased with the decision.

"My client views the decision as a victory and almost complete vindication. Although the judge imposed some small fines, my client fought this battle to be allowed to keep his workshop on the beach, and the judge ruled in his favor on that. The town of Vinalhaven squandered so much time and money pursuing this matter, and ultimately achieved nothing. The judge also appropriately lambasted the Vinalhaven code enforcement officer, Jackie Robbins, in the decision. If any attorney fees are awarded to the town, we will certainly appeal, but we are otherwise delighted with the decision," MacLean said in an email statement.

The town must submit a formal, detailed request to the court if it seeks reimbursement for attorney's fees.

Town Manager Andrew Dorr said the town had no comment at this time.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.