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As Fines Mount, Thetford Woman Won’t Tear Down That Wall

Friday, May 22, 2015
Thetford — The dispute over the 60-by-24-foot structure that Ruth Dwyer erected in her front yard last fall to block the view of a newly built home across the street continues to simmer.

The town zoning administrator has been assessing Dwyer daily fines, which now total thousands of dollars, for her refusal to take down what the town considers to be a wall that violates zoning regulations. The neighbor who built the house across Sawnee Bean Road has retained a lawyer and called upon the town to do what Dwyer has refused to do: Tear the structure down.

Meanwhile, Dwyer, who has said she considers the structure a temporary screen, has accused town officials of a number of misdeeds, including adopting a fine schedule earlier this year specifically to punish her.

In November, Zoning Administrator Mary Ellen Parkman ruled that the structure — built from utility poles and green fabric — qualified as a wall that exceeds 10 feet in height and therefore required a permit to erect. Dwyer submitted an after-the-fact permit application that was denied Feb. 10 . Soon after, the town began imposing the daily fines.

“Two hundred dollars a day since March 12th,” Parkman said in an email on Thursday. “Adds up.”

Dwyer appealed the town’s determination of a violation in March, but she did not appear at either of the subsequent town Development Review Board hearings where the issue appeared on the agenda. The review board voted to uphold Parkman’s ruling last week.

While it is Parkman’s duty to assess the fines, it falls on the Selectboard to collect the money. In an interview last week, board chairman Stuart Rogers said he discussed the issue with the town attorney. On Thursday, board member Jim Lanctot said Dwyer’s fines have yet to be discussed by the full board.

Phone messages left for Dwyer on Thursday were not returned, but in letters to town officials over the past month, she has objected to the town’s actions on a number of fronts. Specifically, she accused the Selectboard of adopting the policy that allows for the $200-a-day fine with the specific intent of targeting her. The Selectboard approved the fine policy in late February, after Dwyer was found to be out of compliance.

“There is likely no more provable example of an illegal, ex post facto directive,” Dwyer wrote in a letter to the Development Review Board dated April 28.

Dwyer wrote that she is exploring other options to block her view of the 1,500-square-foot home that Coos County native Patrick Perry and his wife built last year after buying a two-acre hay field in 2013. Possibilities include a solar array, a pole barn for hay storage and “re-grading my front field with berms to accommodate a 9-10 foot high privacy screen that adequately blocks the television light pollution emanating across the road.”

She also cited recent state court cases that suggest the $200-a-day fine should be reserved “for the most egregious of zoning infractions.”

A former state legislator, Dwyer was the Republican challenger to then-Gov. Howard Dean in the general election in 1998 and 2000. During her political career, she often advocated for private property rights and allied herself with the “Take Back Vermont” movement that followed passage of Act 60, a school financing law, and the legalization of same-sex civil unions.

In interviews, town officials dismissed allegations that the fine policy targeted Dwyer, although they did acknowledge that her case prompted its adoption because it brought an earlier oversight to light. When the town’s zoning bylaws were adopted years ago, they said, the wording made reference to a fines policy, but that policy was never formally put in place.

“In dealing with the Dwyer matter we realized our zoning bylaw pointed to a policy that didn’t exist,” Parkman said. “The bylaw went into effect in 2011, but this is the first violation since it was adopted. The policy was not directed at Ruth, but it was with her violation that we realized we needed a policy since our zoning bylaw pointed to one.”

Rogers, the Selectboard chairman, said in an email that “the amendment only clarifies that process (of following up on violations), and was not aimed at, nor intended for, any one specific case or individual.”

Perry, the neighbor, referred questions to his Burlington-based attorney, Norm Blais, who said in a phone interview Thursday that he and his client have asked the town to raze the wall if Dwyer does not come into compliance soon.

Blais said Perry would like to see the wall taken down so that “he can make an informed decision” about whether or not to sell his house. A real estate agent has told Perry that doing so with Dwyer’s structure standing “is going to be somewhat difficult because nobody is going to want” to buy Perry’s house, Blais said. Blais said the real estate agent did not give hard numbers about how much of an effect Dwyer’s structure could potentially have on Perry’s property value.

Blais said he and Perry have not set a deadline for when they want the wall to come down, and that Perry is not yet considering legal action against Dwyer.

“We’re kind of just playing that issue by ear and see what progress is made, if any,” Blais said.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.




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