Tempers flare, lawsuits mount over Windham development

Posted Oct. 21, 2011, at 7:50 p.m.

WINDHAM, Maine — Oversights and mistakes in the lot sale records for a Windham development over the past decade, which went largely unnoticed for years, have today snowballed into a neighborhood free-for-all leaving homeowners with hurt feelings, potentially unmarketable homes and tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills.

On Monday, the Windham Planning Board will hold a public hearing on a slate of ordinance changes that, had they been in place in the late 1990s, may have helped avoid the Evans Ridge mess. The complex soap opera includes allegations of title insurance paperwork being lost in mysterious fires and a developer forced to defend his reputation — and pay out more than $50,000 in fines — when it turned out Evans Ridge was not an isolated incident.

Developer Michael Manning built Evans Ridge, initially, as a private dead end road meandering northeast off the River Road. Starting in 1999, he incrementally gifted and sold lots and homes along the road to acquaintances and family members.

However, as the development grew, Manning and his attorney at the time, Windham-based Laurence “Bud” Minott, neglected to extend legal access to the publicly owned River Road to the farthest back lots of the development, effectively leaving the properties landlocked.

“The right of way that went across my property was only good for a fraction of the house lots that were back there,” said Timothy Nangle, whose property was one of those Manning needed an easement to cross. “There were 14 house lots back there and only 10 of them have the right to use that right of way.”

That problem remained largely overlooked until 2007, when residents of the neighborhood began meeting to set up a road maintenance association. The property owners at the mouth of the road told those on the back lots to check their deeds and consider legal advice for how to establish passage across their properties, which the back lot owners had been informally taking advantage of since they moved in over the previous two years.

That’s when things got ugly, as Nangle recalled. Some property owners on the road signed over free easements to the back lot owners in light of the oversight, while others held out for compensation.

“It was pretty friendly until the right of way issue came up,” Nangle said. “It got very heated. Somebody asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘Everything has a value.’ I wasn’t going to lock myself into, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll just give this away’ or ‘We want a million dollars.’ I won’t say we were thrown out of the house, but the meeting was ended.”

The easement issue didn’t just exist for the two privately owned properties connecting the lots Manning developed with the River Road. As it turned out, the owners of the back lots needed to establish rights of way across each of the other lots sold during the earlier stages of development down the road.

“It was a great neighborhood, and this caused strife in the neighborhood,” Manning said. “A couple people felt they were being taken advantage of. In hindsight, I guess I can understand where they said, ‘Hey, this guy’s building a road across my property,’ but why did it take them three years to bring [the easement complaint] up? It was kind of like they were setting themselves up to make money.”

One of the lots across which an easement was needed belongs to Sarah and Chris Trafford, who moved into their first family home on Evans Ridge Road in November of 2002.

Errors in deed

“This has been three years of hell,” Sarah Trafford said.

The Traffords represent a unique case among the property owners in the Evans Ridge entanglement. The property recorded in their initial deed was not their new home and the coordinates of the land it sat upon, but rather their new home and a different 14-acre lot nearby.

They owned a home, but not the land underneath it.

That went unnoticed until it came time for the Traffords, like the other families in the earlier sections of Evans Ridge Road, to figure out how to establish rights of way for the homeowners in the back lots.

When the Traffords sat down with an attorney to talk about access across their property for the back lot owners, they said, they discovered that at some point after their 2002 property purchase, Manning filed a corrective deed with the Registry of Deeds to accurately reflect that the sale was for the land under the house, not the disembodied 14 acres nearby.

The trouble was, other important paperwork, including the title insurance policy, was not similarly corrected at the time.

As a result, the Traffords said they met with resistance from their title insurance company, Stewart Title Co., when they sought help seeking reimbursement for the to-be-established rights-of-way for the back lots. That resistance, they said, came in the form of increasingly dramatic rebuttals from Stewart claiming the Traffords’ policy was rendered unusable because of a typographical error in an unrelated section of the document, or that the paperwork in its entirety was lost in a 2006 fire.

This fall, Chris Trafford helped launch a website — named StewartBlewIt.com and featuring a nearly five-and-a-half minute documentary video — to expand on his family’s story.

A Stewart Title Co. spokesman said the company has no comment on the Evans Ridge development, beyond saying in an email that “Stewart has either indemnified or offered to indemnify the policy holders and has therefore complied with the terms and conditions of the policy.”

An attorney representing Manning has served Chris Trafford with notice that he plans to sue Trafford for defamation over the website because he said it portrays Manning in an unfavorable light.

“The idea that Mr. Manning is behind it is ridiculous,” said John Campbell, Manning’s attorney. “Manning is the biggest victim. Sure, they can complain about the screw-ups, but they should be realizing that this is not the doings of a builder. This is the doings of a lawyer. He doesn’t know about the intricacies of subdivision law or title insurance law. Mr. Manning is the biggest victim of all of this.”

Lawsuits galore

The threatened defamation suit is just the latest in a flurry of legal actions and counteractions.

Manning is also suing his former attorney Minott for negligence in drafting the paperwork Manning used to begin building the development in the first place.

Windham town code enforcement officers have not deemed Evans Ridge an illegal subdivision, but a similar development organized by Manning and Minott was found to be illegal by the nearby town of Raymond, which fined Manning $50,000 for not seeking appropriate town permits.

Adding to what has become a legal spiderweb, Lawyers Title Insurance Co., representing the interests of the owners of two of the back lots — Mark and Teresa MacQueston, and Donald and Nancy Murdoch, respectively — has sued Manning and Minott to recoup the money expended to establish afterthought rights of way to the River Road.

Dean Beaupain, the Millinocket attorney representing Lawyers Title, and by extension the MacQuestons and Murdochs, did not return a call seeking comment by press time.

Minott did not respond to an email from the Bangor Daily News, and said through his secretary that he will not comment on the Evans Ridge case because of the ongoing litigation.

The aftermath

On Monday, the Windham Planning Board will hold a public hearing on a slate of ordinance changes that, in part, seek to prevent future developments from ending up like Evans Ridge Road.

“It’s designed to keep the access to a back lot more clear,” said Benjamin Smith, the town’s assistant planning director, of the proposed ordinance change.

The revised ordinance would, if ultimately passed by the Town Council and subsequently enforced, require certain road construction standards, formation of a road maintenance association, and legally established easements for back lots before town approvals are granted for a private road development.

Manning, who said negotiations with at least two potential home buyers have broken off since word spread about the Evans Ridge development, said his reputation continues to suffer.

“Those are just people walking away from negotiations,” he said. “Can you imagine how many jobs I’ve lost because people don’t even call me in the first place? It’s a hard enough environment for builders already out there. … It’s a shame. You work hard to have a good name and something like this tarnishes it.”

The Traffords, who are renting out their Evans Ridge Road home and are living elsewhere to avoid the animosity from neighbors that grew out of the heated easement negotiations, are concerned their property is in an illegal subdivision and thus, unmarketable.

Chris Trafford said his family remains angry that it expended nearly $50,000 out of pocket to seek resolution to the easement entanglement before Stewart joined the title insurance companies representing the other homeowners to work on a solution.

Nangle shares concerns that the record keeping mix-up down the road has put a black mark on the entire area.

“I don’t know if my property is saleable,” Nangle said. “I’ve never tried, and I’m scared to death to try. Anybody doing a title search is going to want to stay away from all of this. This shatters my confidence in title insurance, and it shatters my confidence in having somebody perform a title search.”

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