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64-year-old Blue Hill woman granted reprieve from eviction

Kevin Miller | BDN
Kevin Miller | BDN
Area residents gathered at Blue Hill Town Hall on Tuesday evening, April 3, 2012 for a vigil to support Dorothy Leighton of Blue Hill. The town of Blue Hill intends to evict her unless a solution emerges to the back taxes she owes.
By Kevin Miller, BDN Staff

BLUE HILL, Maine — A woman who owes tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes to Blue Hill was granted an additional reprieve by town officials on Wednesday, one day before police were slated to evict her from her home.

Blue Hill’s selectmen apparently opted to call off the eviction after Dorothy Leighton agreed to continue meeting with social service agencies to find ways to improve her living situation as well as assess her mental health, Leighton said Wednesday night.

“I am making changes and concessions to do whatever I can to save the house,” Leighton, 64, said in an interview.

“We are certainly optimistic but there is still a ways to go,” said Jim Schatz, one of the town selectmen.

Earlier Wednesday, it still looked as if Leighton might be removed on Thursday from the family home that she no longer owns because of unpaid taxes but where she has been allowed to live tax-free for years.

Delinquent property taxes are a financial problem for nearly every town. But Leighton’s case with Blue Hill is an example of how long some towns are willing to look the other way and then how sticky tax-related foreclosures can get when issues of mental health and disability are involved.

Leighton owes Blue Hill roughly 20 years worth of property taxes — totaling more than $30,000 when fees are included — on a small home she inherited from her grandparents.

Leighton lives on Social Security income that she receives for several mental health disabilities, including a mild case of agoraphobia — or fear of open or public places — as well as panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder from past abuse. She also claims she is unable to ride in a car and is emotionally unable to stray far from her home.

According to the town and Maine’s highest court, Leighton hasn’t owned the Mill Pond Road house since at least 1993, when the town took possession 18 months after she failed to rectify a lien on the property. Yet the town has allowed Leighton to live in the house since then, all the while continuing to send her subsequent tax notices and liens.

That situation changed in 2008 when Blue Hill voters approved an ordinance requiring the town to auction off properties acquired through tax foreclosures. In 2010, Blue Hill officials notified Leighton that she would have to vacate the property, which the town argues had become a safety issue for her and a legal liability for the municipality.

Leighton took her efforts to stay in the home that she regards as key to her mental health to Maine’s highest court, which ruled last October that the town had legally obtained the property through tax foreclosure and could forcibly evict her. The issue continued to move toward eviction until late Wednesday.

“I have been fighting for so many years,” Leighton said Tuesday before being granted another reprieve. “I am tired but I will not give up. I recognize my back property tax issue, but I haven’t been able to rectify it with the selectmen because they won’t work with me.”

Blue Hill selectmen strongly disagree with Leighton’s assessment of things, pointing out that the town has made repeated offers to help move Leighton into an apartment or facility where she would be safer and more comfortable. She had refused all such offers from the town and offers of assistance from social service agencies, Selectman John Bannister said Tuesday.

At some point, Bannister said, the town has to say, “you’ve done all you can do.”

“It is really a terribly, terribly sad situation,” Bannister said. “We wish there were some alternative but she has closed the door on every other alternative we have put forward. … She has refused to accept the reality of the situation.”

As the prospect of Leighton’s eviction drew closer, a small group of friends and concerned citizens began scrambling to delay the impending action as they attempted to find ways to keep Leighton in a home that she claims is critical to her mental health.

On Tuesday night, about 20 people gathered outside of Blue Hill Town Hall for a candlelight vigil to show support for Leighton and to call for more time to find ways to allow her and her cats to remain in the home where she feels most comfortable, albeit with outside help.

“We are at a point now where there are people really coming together to help resolve the situation to avoid Dorothy having to leave her home in a way that is not dignified,” Bob St. Peter, a friend of Leighton’s, said during the vigil.

One avenue being pursued was to find “investors” who might be willing to pay off the back taxes, take possession of the house and grant Leighton lifetime tenancy in the house her grandfather built near Blue Hill Falls.

Birgit Frind, a Blue Hill resident, said she believes the selectmen have been pushed to evict by neighbors upset about the condition of Leighton’s house and the yard. Frind said Leighton’s supporters are trying to show the selectmen that progress is being made but that they need more time.

“To work out all of these things at the last minute is very, very difficult,” Frind said.

For the town, however, Leighton’s situation is regarded as a potential legal liability.

A 2010 inspection by the town found what officials said are numerous structural and safety problems, including an improperly vented furnace that was leaking potentially deadly levels of carbon monoxide into the basement. Officials claim there has been little to no maintenance on the house during the past 20-plus years and it would cost in excess of $40,000 to fix the problems identified in the inspection.

“It suddenly struck home with us that the town can’t continue to look the other way,” Bannister said. “Once it is the town’s property, it is a liability.”

Neighbors also have complained of rats and about how the state of Leighton’s property affects their own property values, and they have pointed out that Blue Hill officials now are responsible for the house.

Leighton disputes the town’s assessment that her house is unsafe to live in and claims she has tried repeatedly to work with selectmen over the years. A different inspector brought in by Leighton found that the house needed just $10,000 in repairs, she said.

For her part, Leighton feels as if she has been vilified by some in the community. She also believes others in town have the wrong impression of her because of her mental health and emotional problems — issues that keep her inside but that “don’t make me crazy or incompetent,” she said.

Leighton fully acknowledges that she cannot pay the $30,000 in back taxes, although she said she is trying to get herself on a more stable footing both financially and socially. She insists she is trying to be better about keeping up with household maintenance, and her supporters have offered to make sure her grass is mowed and trash is removed.

Asked why she wouldn’t rather move to a subsidized apartment where she would no longer need to worry about maintenance and upkeep, Leighton said she believes staying in her own home is the best option because of her disabilities.

“Where I live I have some freedom,” she said. “I can go outside and I can have a garden. I can walk down the road if I choose to. … Living in an apartment is not an ideal situation for me.”

Bannister, meanwhile, had indicated on Tuesday that selectmen would be willing to stop the eviction but only if there was clear movement toward resolving the problem in the immediate future, not months or years from now.

Schatz said Wednesday night that thanks to hard work by a number of social services agencies, the selectmen felt they were seeing some substantive movement or at least the beginning of progress. Both Schatz and Leighton said there was no timeline established for resolving the issue.

“We are eager to see how all of this plays out,” Schatz said.

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