GROTON -- Questions raised by dueling attorneys at the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting of April 17 prevented members from coming to an immediate decision regarding use of property off Pine Trail that neighbors say has become more than just an eyesore.
"We're fighting for our house right now," said Deborah Mendel. "This has taken an incredible toll. We can't look out any window right now. I'm dealing with him in my front yard constantly."
At issue was a small lot owned by Richard Mavilia, adjacent to Mendel's, which wraps around it in the shape of an "L."
Since acquiring the lot, Mavilia cleared it of trees and began storing a boat and trailer and vehicles there as well as construction equipment such as granite blocks and railroad ties used for building a retaining wall around the steeply graded property.
Breaking into sobs, Mendel described to board members what she has had to contend with over the years including noise, lights and foul language loud enough for she and her children to hear, all taking place virtually in her front yard.
After the situation was brought to the attention of Michelle Collette, who had been serving as the town's interim zoning enforcement officer, a letter was sent to Mavilia in February notifying the landowner that a seize and desist order had been placed on his property.
"This has been an ongoing issue...for more than a year," said Collette of the struggle to get Mavilia to stop using the lot for storage.
Collette said that the basis for the seize and desist order was a finding by town counsel that the two properties were not acquired by the same deed. Since Mavilia was not living in an existing house he owned across the street, he could not claim accessory use of the empty lot.
Furthermore, Collette cited the town's bylaw that defined the area of a lot as not including ponds and roads thus supporting the contention that Mavilia's two properties were separate and distinct.
The issue at hand, concluded Collette, was the "culmination" of years' worth of violations on the part of Mavilia.
It was that seize and desist order which was being appealed with the ZBA on the evening of April 17. Mavilia attorney Robert Collins tried to explain to the board that use of the lot for storage was allowed under the law because it was of a piece with the owner's main property across the street.
It was Collins' contention that because the law defined property as extending to the center line of the road, the two pieces of property were legally one. Since storage was allowed for the principal property across the street then it was also allowed for the adjacent lot on the other side.
But Mendel attorney Paul Haggerty disagreed, insisting that the road dividing the two lots was owned by the town making the two lots separate and distinct properties with use of the principal not necessarily allowed on the other.
It was a "presumption" on Collins' part, said Haggerty of ownership of the road, a position that was far from being "absolute."
Furthermore, said Haggerty, with two separate deeds for each lot, they were clearly not of a whole.
It was at that point that Collins and Haggerty began to trade rulings and findings from case law supporting their respective positions on the issue.
"There isn't anything going on on this lot that isn't going on anywhere else in town," noted Collins. Earlier in the meeting, he had called the board's attention to other instances of cross street properties used for septic systems or driveways that were not considered accessory uses to the main property even if the owner did not live there.
But the board questioned Collins' logic and seemed to be leaning in favor of Mendel. Member Robert Cadle even went as far as to declare his willingness to vote on the issue that night with his own position being against Mavilia.
But Cadle's declaration was premature with fellow board members willing to wait and learn more about precedents and court decisions cited by Collins as well as a definitive statement from town counsel regarding ownership of Pine Trail and what rights the town had to it.
A site walk was scheduled to take place before the public hearing was reconvened on May 1.