September 21, 2019
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Maine’s highest court sides with island inn over neighbor’s complaint

Courtesy of Hannah Pingree
Courtesy of Hannah Pingree
The building on the left is the focus of a court appeal filed by a neighbor to the Nebo Lodge on North Haven.

NORTH HAVEN, Maine — Concluding a prolonged dispute that pitted a neighbor against the owners of a historic inn on an island roughly 10 miles out to sea, Maine’s highest court has sided with the owners of Nebo Lodge.

The ruling handed down Tuesday by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court puts to rest an appeal filed by Steven Wolfram, who owns a summer home next to the 9-room inn, which is owned by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and operated by her daughter and former Democratic Maine House Speaker, Hannah Pingree.

Wolfram, who bought his summer home in 2009, filed a lawsuit in the Knox County Superior Court in 2015, after the spring 2014 completion of a two-story, 40-by-26-foot building on the inn’s property. The addition was built to house two lodge employees and provide storage and office space. Wolfram lost that case in April 2016 and appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.

Wolfram and his Portland-based attorneys Matthew Manahan and Catherine Connors claimed that the expansion violated town zoning and that the town misinterpreted its own code when approving the structure and allowed construction of a building that was a nonconforming use.

He said in May 2014 that when he bought his summer residence five years prior, Nebo Lodge was a quiet, modest-size bed and breakfast. It had grown in the years since, he claimed, and had adversely affected the area with traffic noise.

Oral arguments began in February.

In an email Wednesday, Hannah Pingree said she was “extremely relieved to have this over.”

“We were disappointed our neighbor would take this so far for such a baseless complaint and especially after the Planning Board, Board of Appeals and Superior Court decided in our favor,” Pingree wrote.

“This has been a financial burden on our small community who has had to defend the permit, paying for legal fees. We are glad to have this behind us,” she said.

Attempts Wednesday morning to contact Wolfram’s attorneys were unsuccessful.

In the Tuesday decision, the high court found that “Wolfram’s interpretation is unsupported by the language of the ordinance.”

The particular zone in which Nebo Lodge sits “clearly permits any nonconforming structure to be expanded.,” even on the same lot, the decision reads. And because the expansion does not exceed 33 percent of the footprint of the previous structure, it is permitted.

In keeping with the town Board of Appeals’ initial determination, the court also disagreed with Wolfram’s claim that the additional building was a “guest house” and was therefore nonconforming.

“Neither the evidence nor the ordinance compelled the BOA to find and conclude that the annex is a ‘guest house,’ and we accord deference to the BOA’s ultimate characterization,” the decision read.

Wolfram also claimed that he was denied his due process during his appeal to North Haven’s Board of Appeals after discovering emails between Hannah Pingree and town officials. The unfair bias of the board Chairwoman Pat Curtis, he claimed, resulted in the rejection of Wolfram’s appeal.

But the court found that “none of these communications … implicates the BOA’s impartiality.”

Most of the emails are rudimentary correspondence about the permitting process and other applicable topics, according to the decision.

More, “Wolfram’s contention that the procedural unfairness was endemic to the entire process before the town was unsupported and unpersuasive.”

Conclusively, the Board of Appeal’s decision “did not violate Wolfram’s due process rights,” the Law Court wrote.

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