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A Brooks woman who provides sanctuary to formerly abused and neglected animals is suing the town for what she says is discrimination, after local officials denied her request for a property tax exemption on the property.
Daniella Tessier, the executive director of the Peace Ridge Sanctuary, said that she filed the lawsuit after efforts to work with town officials broke down, specifically after a 2017 meeting with selectmen she described as belittling and misogynistic.
“I feel that it’s very unfortunate,” she said. “What it highlights for me is that this is small-town government at its worst.”
But attorneys for the town of Brooks disagree with Tessier’s evaluation of the situation and the extent to which she can claim nonprofit, tax-exempt status. After mediation efforts failed last month, the attorneys said this week that the lawsuit is likely to go to trial.
At issue is the property tax bill for the sanctuary, which Tessier said has averaged around $10,000 annually. She has offered to pay Brooks $2,500 per year in lieu of property taxes, but the town has not accepted the offer.
“The municipal representatives for Brooks have a responsibility to make sure they’re doing right by the town and the community, and a part of that is to get the town’s tax exemptions right,” Tracy B. Collins of Rudman Winchell Law Firm in Bangor wrote Thursday in an email. “In this case, we likely will need a court to clarify how the law applies to this organization and to what extent its operations are exempt from taxation.”
Tessier founded Peace Ridge Sanctuary in 2001 to provide a permanent home for rescued animals, with a particular focus on farmed animals such as pigs, cows, horses, goats and sheep. It became incorporated as a nonprofit in 2005 and was located on a 15-acre parcel in the Hancock County town of Penobscot until 2015. That’s when five major donors helped the organization purchase a much larger home in Brooks, a nearly 800-acre former estate farm which the group bought for about $1 million.
The 300 rescued animals that currently live there include animals from every high-profile rescue case that has happened in Maine during the past couple of years, Tessier said. Among those are Angus, the only Mangalitsa pig to survive an alleged massacre at the farm of a Swanville man and goats that were rescued from tough conditions in Aroostook County several years ago.
“This isn’t like a private rescue or a hobby farm,” Tessier said. “We’re a major service operation in New England. We’re one of the biggest animal shelters on the Eastern Seaboard. Whether or not you like our mission has nothing to do with it.”
She believes that local officials do not agree with the sanctuary’s mission, which is why they have not given it the property tax exemption she said she first requested in 2016.
“They got back to us a few months later with just a blanket ‘no, we’re not going to give it to you,’” Tessier said. “After that rejection of our application, I hit just roadblock after roadblock with them.”
She said she contacted the town clerk quite a few times to ask what the appeals process was but “got pretty much nowhere.” Then, in 2017, Tessier was able to schedule a meeting with the town’s three selectmen. She had high hopes, preparing a formal presentation about the sanctuary and its mission as a state-registered nonprofit group. But nothing went as she had hoped it would, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in June.
One selectman began the meeting by “taking a pool” with the other selectmen about Tessier’s age, the complaint stated. At the time Tessier was 41 years old.
“All of the selectmen guessed that she is under 21, thereby subjecting Ms. Tessier to ridicule, demeaning her as a woman, and creating a hostile and discriminatory environment for the meeting,” the complaint, filed by attorneys Jonathan A. Block and Christina Berkow of Pierce Atwood in Portland, continued. “Other selectmen stated that they do not like Peace Ridge’s mission, that Peace Ridge is made up of ‘outsiders,’ and that Peace Ridge is ‘against our dear neighbor farmers.’”
Selectmen allegedly suggested that Peace Ridge should cut its trees to pay property taxes.
The lawsuit also claims that First Selectman Arthur Butler told Tessier that “people in town know you overpaid for the property, and everyone is pissed — your group pushed up everyone else’s taxes, so we can’t give you an exemption when people look at you as being able to afford such an expensive property.”
Another selectman, Mike Switzer, allegedly told Tessier that he needed to “assimilate” to Brooks when he moved there from New Jersey, and the sanctuary did, too, according to the lawsuit. As well, he reportedly said that the “vegans” from Peace Ridge cannot do things the town wants because the sanctuary is “against farmers.”
Attempts to contact Butler and Switzer about the 2017 meeting have been unsuccessful. But Collins said that the town “strongly disputes” Tessier’s characterization of the interaction that day and contends that sanctuary did not file its application for an exemption until March 3, 2019 — three years after Tessier said it had been filed.
“This is a unique facility and a unique situation,” Collins wrote, adding that the sanctuary represents a “significant” portion of the town’s land base and its overall valuation.
A big part of the town’s concern about the sanctuary is the way that the land it occupies is being used.
“The animal shelter facilities themselves, we understand, operate on only a small fraction of land,” Collins wrote. “Ms. Tessier runs the rest of the land a little like a private conservation area, and she and her team have established limitations on how the community can use the land that the town is concerned take it outside of the umbrella of the exemption.”
Tessier said she understands that her situation poses challenges for town officials, but she doesn’t think it should. Part of Peace Ridge’s mission is to be a conservation organization too, she said, even if local officials do not agree.
“The town keeps saying that we don’t use all the property for our mission. That seems to be a sticking point,” she said. “To me it really seems, honestly, they don’t want to understand how to administrate this process equitably, because they just don’t want to. Even though at this point it’s not even rational. It’s been awful.”