Town Planning Boards grapple with subdivision plans

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

It’s not often that two planning boards, each with their own rules, are charged with the task of reviewing one subdivision project.

But Maine law requires a joint review if the land to be divided lies within the boundary of two towns. In the case of a 14-lot subdivision proposal off Knights Hill Road, it is only the access road that lies within the town of Sweden. All of the lots, ranging in size from four to seven acres, are located in Bridgton.

The Bridgton Planning Board was poised to begin reviewing the project at its June 2 meeting, but tabled that review after learning of Sweden’s interest in being part of the review process. The access road in Sweden, called Westview Lane, that developer Lance Colwell wants to use as a right-of-way into the project, is a private road and Sweden officials are questioning whether Colwell has the right to use it.

Westview Lane property owners in Sweden have cried foul, and have hired a lawyer, saying Colwell’s easements to his 76-acre parcel were never intended to pave the way for a 14-lot subdivision.

On Tuesday, the Bridgton and Sweden Planning Boards met jointly in Bridgton for the first time to begin reviewing the project. It didn’t take long for Sweden’s board to raise the easement issue, as Colwell’s developer, George Sawyer, began explaining the project to the two boards.

“Westview Lane is a private road,” said Sweden Planning Board Secretary Laura Chadbourne. “So how can a private road be used to access another property?”

That question dominated the next hour of discussion, until both boards agreed to table the project in order to hold a site walk. The walk, which is open to the public, has been scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 22, at 5 p.m.

Sawyer said the land’s former owner, Ron Leavitt, created six or seven lots on the Sweden side, leaving the 76 acres that Colwell recently bought. Sawyer said that Westview Lane continues on to the large parcel, and that Colwell’s deed continues the easements granted from a small four-lot subdivision approved in Sweden in 2000, as well as subsequent conveyances among several of Leavitt’s family members.

Colwell’s attorney, Michael Friedman of Bridgton, backed up Sawyer’s opinion with his own. He said that Colwell “can demonstrate a legal and vested right to use the private way extending from the public way of Knights Hill Road” to his property, by virtue of records on file at the Oxford County Registry of Deeds. “Each and every division has equal rights, access and use of the easement,” he said.

In a letter to the Bridgton Planning Board, Friedman also maintained that Colwell’s use of Westview Lane to access the lots “will not overburden the easement.”

Abutters at Tuesday’s meeting strongly disagreed with that last point, saying Westview Lane is not even a road, but a driveway. Sweden Code Enforcement Officer Eric Gulbrandsen said Westview Lane was never approved as a road by the town.

“I don’t want 28 cars flying down my road,” said Kevin Taylor, an abutter who lives at the sign for Westview Lane. His wife, Annamarie Pond, said, “When we bought the property, we bought it for how remote it is.”

Another abutter, Barbara Mitchell, said she and her husband routinely have to finance repairs and improvements to the road, which becomes muddy in the spring.

The abutters’ attorney, Frank Chowdry, said there is evidence to suggest that Colwell’s easement rights would not hold up to careful scrutiny. He suggested that in 1974, “Some grantor granted an easement he had no right to grant” and that the town of Sweden does not allow. He suggested that the title to Colwell’s land is not straightforward. “This application, in my view, represents the most challenging proposal I’ve looked at, in terms of title to property.

“There needs to be more title work done,” Chowdry said. “There’s some significant doubts that raise legitimate questions of access” with the project proposal, he added.

The Bridgton Planning Board only recently grappled with abutter concerns over the use of a private road to access land for a subdivision when it approved Buck Estates, a four-lot subdivision on the side of Pleasant Mountain.

In the Colwell case, Bridgton town officials early on asked for legal advice as to whether their planning board was required to meet jointly with the Sweden Planning Board to review the project, and also asked for advice on the right-of-way issue.

Portland attorney David Kallin responded by confirming that a joint meeting was needed under Maine law. Bridgton Planning Board Chairman Steve Collins said both boards need to remain in “lock-step” throughout the process, with both reviewing all aspects of the project under their respective subdivision ordinances. He noted, however, that the review process under Sweden’s ordinance is “more stringent” and rigorous than Bridgton requires.

As to questions about right-of-way easements, Kallin said both boards must be satisfied that Colwell has shown evidence he has the “right, title and interest” in the property to be subdivided. Then he added:

“The RTI standard is a low hurdle for the applicant to clear. The Planning Board is not a court, and does not need to definitively resolve competing interpretations of deeds and rights-of-way.” Kallin went on to say that if there is a dispute over whether the RTI standard has been met, the boards need to “ask each party in the dispute to present their case” and then make a ruling based on the total evidence presented.

“The parties to the dispute are always free to pursue a more definitive resolution of the issue in court,” Kallin said,

Sweden Planning Board Chairman David Johnson agreed Tuesday that “We’re not the Law Court,” and it would be “very imprudent” for either board to act in that role. Still, he said, “Right now it’s questionable” whether Colwell has the right to use Westview Lane for his project.

Johnson said the best scenario would be for Colwell and the abutters to try to work out a compromise on the access issue. But Friedman said Colwell’s only option for access to the land is from Westview Lane.

In a July 17 letter to Sawyer, Johnson wrote, “The Town of Sweden Planning Board takes a serious interest in all matters, particularly subdivision applications. We want to be informed, judicious, as well as helpful in our application of the laws.”

 

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