WASHINGTON, Maine — Traci Hoffman said she refused to be bullied by the town after it took her to court because officials said her property, among other things, negatively affected the scenic view in town.
A state judge, however, chastised the town for how it went about trying to enforce its land-use laws and ordered Washington to pay more than $10,000 to Hoffman for her legal fees and court costs.
“This is pretty unusual. Maybe it’s typical in Washington, but this is not the way it is done in most rural towns in Maine,” Justice Daniel Billings said as he ruled July 8 in favor of Hoffman after a trial in Knox County District Court.
Hoffman said she has struggled to be able to afford the costs of fighting the town but said the principle was more important than the financial expense.
“I would rather work overtime for the rest of my life than pay a bully,” Hoffman said Wednesday at her home on Waldoboro Road in Washington.
The lengthy legal battle began in December 2013. The town’s code enforcement officer, Robert Temple, sent a letter to Hoffman saying she was in violation of several municipal land-use laws. Those alleged violations involved an accumulation of debris that created a fire hazard and public health threat, which harmed the scenic view. Temple listed in his letter that there was a pile in her yard of asphalt shingles that had been taken off the roof, two boats in disrepair and assorted other materials on the ground.
The code officer also claimed she had a couple of sheds in the back yard that were too close to the neighbor’s boundary line.
Hoffman called the town office the day after she got the letter and was told she had to talk to the code officer. Hoffman called Temple, who told her he could only meet with her late Wednesday afternoons, when he was at the town office. Hoffman’s job as a certified residential medication aide, however, conflicted with that schedule.
Unable to meet with Temple, she wrote a letter to the selectmen asking to discuss the complaint.
The next response Hoffman got was the filing of the court complaint by the town.
Hoffman’s attorney Patrick Mellor said that instead of engaging in a dialogue with his client, the town “crashed forward like a bull in a china closet,” forcing his client to spend money she could not afford.
Billings agreed, saying there are consequences to actions and the consequence for the town is that it will pay Hoffman’s legal and court expenses. Those costs total $10,281.
During the lengthy court proceedings over the last year and a half, there have been numerous hearings to address motions in the case. In that time, Hoffman and Mellor were able to show Temple eyeballed the distances from the sheds to the neighbor’s boundary line but had not actually taken measurements. When the distances were measured, it was determined the sheds met the setback requirements, according to court documents.
In addition, it was determined the shingles had been stored in the yard immediately after the roof work had been done and had frozen to the ground when winter arrived. They were removed the next spring. In regard to the two boats in disrepair, Hoffman told the court that one was operational and her husband, who was not named in the lawsuit, used it to go clamming. He was working to repair the other boat, she said.
By the time the case went to trial last week, the only remaining claim was that the property was in violation of the scenic view section of the town’s land-use ordinances. Billings ruled this section of the town ordinances was unconstitutionally vague because it included no standards for residents to be able to determine whether they were in violation.
Billings said at last week’s trial that most towns would have had someone knock on the homeowner’s door to talk about what it considered violations.
Attorney Frederick Newcomb III, who represents Washington, agreed Wednesday that the town could have handled it differently.
“Hindsight is 20-20,” Newcomb said.
The town attorney said tense situations often can develop when a code officer goes alone to the home of a resident, and that is why Temple did not go and meet with Hoffman before sending the letter and the town proceeded with the court action.
He said, however, the town could approach such a situation better in the future.
Mellor said in court it was not unusual for Washington to act that way toward its residents, saying they have taken multiple people to court for land-use violations.
Newcomb said Wednesday the town enforces its land-use laws. The town takes more land-use enforcement actions, he maintained, because Washington has more gravel pits per capita than nearly any other town in the state, and they are regulated by a municipal mining ordinance.
“We don’t want to deny anyone their livelihood but we have to protect the environment,” Newcomb said.
He said the town won its other land-use cases and understands the judge’s ruling that the scenic ordinance is too vague.