This past Saturday morning (October 15) more than 50 Pine Pointers gathered at 9am at the local fire station for an update on the proposed Avenue 2 land deal. Council Chair Donovan – performing without a net – was the featured speaker. To say that the crowd was uneasy about the proposed deal and the manner in which it is being handled would be a colossal understatement. Pine Pointers, you probably know, are a bit sensitive about land transactions, given the Lighthouse Motel deal and other past deals.
There’s no doubt that Avenue 2 situation is a complicated one. But it’s an important one to understand if you care about how the Town does business and how it considers the interests of its citizens.
In our never-ending quest to distill complicated matters down to their understandable essence, we offer this plain-English account of the basic issue of the current Avenue 2 controversy…
What’s a “paper street”?
Believe it or not, the Avenue 2 saga begins in the 1870s when the first developments on Pine Point were laid out and mapped. At that time, streets were sketched out along with the house lots. Over time, however, portions of the envisioned streets were never built and accepted by the Town. They became “paper streets” – lines on maps where real streets had once been planned. In some cases they became vacant lots; in the case of the Avenue 2 Extension, it became a bucolic and well-used pathway to Pine Point Beach.
As years rolled by, ownership of these paper streets became messy. Who owned them? The Town, the original developer or adjacent property owners? As properties changed hands over the years, the ownership trail of the paper streets often became murkier.
Finally, in 1975 Maine enacted legislation designed to unravel the paper street ownership issues. A key element of that legislation was that each municipality had to take steps to maintain the city or town’s ownership interest of the paper streets by September, 1997. If they failed to do that, the ownership of the paper street would go to the abutting lot owners on each side of the street – with each abutter getting the half of the street adjacent to his or her property.
One of the major questions in this matter is whether Scarborough did take the steps called for in State law by September, 1997 to protect its ownership interest in its paper streets.
So what’s at issue here?
The following is the plot plan of the parcel in question from the Town’s tax assessing data base:
The long, skinny parcel labeled “37” is 37 King Street, which Charles Gendron purchased in 2013 for just over $800,000. It is a 50-foot wide parcel. The parcel at the right labeled “47” is 47 King Street, the Gables by the Sea condos.
In between the two labeled parcels is another long, skinny parcel without a number. This parcel, also 50 feet wide, is the Avenue 2 Extension – the paper street that is the source of the current uproar.
Mr. Gendron’s lawyer contends that the Town lost its ownership rights under the 1975 Maine law by not acting to preserve its interest in the Avenue 2 Extension by September, 1997. Since the Town Council did not act, according to Gendron’s lawyer, his client owns to the middle of the Avenue 2 Extension. Gendron is asking the Town to confirm his ownership of his side of Avenue 2 in exchange for an agreement (easement) to allow permanent public access from King Street to the beach over Avenue 2.
If the Town Council indeed failed to act in accordance with State law on this matter back in 1997, it was a major oops that could have serious impact on public beach access not only on Avenue 2 but on several other paper streets in Scarborough.
Why the big deal over a 50 foot strip of land?
Well, from the Town’s perspective it’s certainly important to protect beach and shore access wherever it currently exists. The pressure to restrict access is always there.
And there’s also the “process thing” – is the Town’s business being done in an open, transparent manner? It’s clear that Mr. Gendron has the ear of the Town Manager and Council Chair Donovan, presumably just as any of us would have. We’re not suggesting anything inappropriate about that.
On the other hand, a large group of Pine Point residents have numerous unanswered questions about the Avenue 2 proposal. They have been asking for a Town Council workshop session on this issue for months in an attempt to get all the facts out on the table. So far, they’ve had no success. Yes, Chairman Donovan has addressed the Pine Point community twice, but he is only one member of a seven-person Council. Also, when and if a workshop is scheduled, it will likely be this winter when a large number of the summer residents (who are year-round taxpayers) will be in a more southerly latitude.
From Mr. Gendron’s point of view, the 25 feet of Avenue 2 he is claiming (half of the 50 foot wide paper street) will make a huge difference in the house he will be able to build to replace the humble A-frame that’s currently on the lot. A building on this site must have a 15-foot setback from the property lines. So if the newly constructed house were to be on his existing 50-foot wide lot at 37 King Street, the maximum width of the house could only be 20 feet, that is, 50 feet less a 15-foot setback on each side of the property.
But if he adds 25 feet of Avenue 2 to his lot width, it will bring the overall lot width to 75 feet. Taking off a 15-foot setback on each side of the lot would allow for a maximum house width of 45 feet. So the maximum width of the house jumps from 20 feet to 45 feet – the difference between a modest dwelling and a much more expansive one. (Sorry about all the arithmetic!)
The following image shows the current house at 37 King Street and an imagined replacement with the 25-foot larger lot. Note that the “after” image is not to scale and grossly overstates (we hope) what zoning requirements would allow. Its purpose is to suggest that the inclusion of the Avenue 2 area in the 37 King Street lot significantly increases the amount of ocean-facing area available for a replacement house.
Just for the record we should also note that a 50-foot lot along this part of Pine Point Beach would have a tax assessment value of more than $1.0 million.
It’s what developers do
We don’t know Mr. Gendron. We do know he already owns a home at 17 King Street at Pine Point. And we know he’s a successful real estate developer. So to him the Avenue 2 project is likely just a routine real estate development – (1) buying an undervalued piece of property (37 King Street), (2) investing some money in it (the legal fees to take advantage of a possible Town screw-up on Avenue 2 and the cost of building a much larger and nicer house to replace the A-frame) and (3) ultimately selling it for a bundle.
As far as we can tell, there’s nothing at all shady about this from a purely business perspective. Or any other perspective, for that matter. Sure, he’s not making himself popular with quite a few of his neighbors, but that’s a known occupational hazard for real estate developers.
There are a host of issues that are tangled up in the current controversy – including ownership, easements, tax implications. As evidence of that, we cite the 16-page legal analysis done by Mr. Gendron’s attorney and the long list of unanswered questions from the Pine Point residents’ group. We hope the above discussion has clarified the basic underlying issue. But this matter is likely to rage on for months unless all the real issues are untangled and presented in a manner that your average non-lawyer can understand. Here are a few of the basic questions we hope the Town Council will answer:
- Exactly what is Mr. Gendron proposing? The only thing we have seen in writing is that he is proposing a swap of clear title to his half of Avenue 2 for a permanent public access easement to the beach. But it is clear that relocating the existing path is somehow part of the proposal. What is the purpose of relocating the path and why isn’t that part of the written proposal? Also, Councilor Donovan noted that Mr. Gendron’s building plans will not include any building extending into the current Avenue 2 lot. Is that documented as part of Mr. Gendron’s proposal?
- What’s in the proposed deal for the Town? Mr. Gendron appears to get the ability to build a much more valuable house on the lot if the Town confirms his ownership of half of Avenue 2. What value does the Town receive in the deal?
- Did the Town fail to take action that would have protected its interest in Avenue 2 and other parcels by the September, 1997 deadline set by Maine law? Shouldn’t this issue be reviewed by an independent party? In fact, it appears that the Town’s legal response to the Gendron proposal has been muted at best.
- What is the status of the Town’s other paper streets and how will any action on Mr. Gendron’s proposal affect them?
We hope to see you soon at a Town Council workshop on the Avenue 2 land deal!
In other news…
The Town Council meeting on October 19 included an item on the formation of a building committee for a new public safety building. Taxpayers will want to pay careful attention to this project… starting now.
The School Board meeting on October 20 will include a report on the details and financial impact of the recently signed contract with the teachers’ union. Look for a report in the next blog posting.
Also, please don’t forget that early voting is happening now at Town Hall. And Annalee Rosenblatt, a long-time advocate for reasonable real estate taxes, is running for Town Council. Please take a look at her website for a full list of her impressive experience and qualifications.
The website also includes a calendar of early voting days.