BLUE HILL, Maine — Sometime on Thursday a 20-year-old property tax issue in Blue Hill could come to an emotional end when police evict a local woman from a family home that she no longer owns but where she has been allowed to live tax-free for years.
Delinquent property taxes are a financial problem for nearly every town. But the case of Blue Hill v. Dorothy Leighton 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.
“At some point, you say you’ve done all you can do,” said John Bannister, a Blue Hill selectman.
Several community members, meanwhile, are scrambling to delay the impending eviction as they attempt to find ways to keep Leighton in a home that she claims is critical to her mental health.
“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 Tuesday during a candlelight vigil outside of Blue Hill Town Hall.
Leighton, 64, 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.
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 lives on Social Security income that she receives for several mental health disabilities, including a mild case of agoraphobia — or fear of being outdoors and in 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.
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.
“I have been fighting for so many years,” Leighton said during a phone interview. “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.”
Bannister and other selectmen strongly disagree, 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 has refused all such offers from the town and offers of assistance from social service agencies, he said.
“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 and I place most of that blame on the people that are enabling her.”
The 20-some people gathered outside of town hall on Tuesday evening did not see themselves as enablers. Instead, they described themselves as friends of Leighton and concerned citizens who feel there are still options left for allowing her and her cats to remain in the home where she feels most comfortable, albeit with outside help.
St. Peter and others have been pursuing a number of avenues through both social services agencies and private individuals. Their current focus is to find “investors” who might be willing to pay off the back taxes, take possession of the house and grant Leighton lifetime tenancy of 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.
Others at the vigil were more frustrated, suggesting that the selectmen should be ashamed for what they described as a lack of compassion for someone who simply wants to live quietly in her own home.
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 are now responsible for the house.
Leighton challenged the town’s ownership of her property in court following the first eviction notice in June 2010, arguing that Blue Hill never officially took possession of the house because they continued to send her property tax and lien notices.
Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court sided with Blue Hill last October, ruling that the town had legally obtained the property through tax foreclosure and could forcibly evict Leighton.
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 issues — 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 due to 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, said selectmen would be willing to stop the eviction but only if there was clear movement toward resolving the issue in the immediate future, not months or years from now.
“Nobody is happy,” he said. “Nobody likes what we are going to have to do.”