Bradford, Vt., Native and Town at Odds Over Cleanup Demands

Thursday, November 26, 2015
Bradford, Vt. — To Robert Nutting, sitting on a lumpy old armchair in the rear of his thrift store behind Main Street, a pile of secondhand socks balanced on his leg, his feelings about the Bradford Selectboard’s rulemaking really boil down to one statement.

“I don’t think you have the right,” he said on Monday afternoon, “to tell me what’s junk and what’s not.”

Nutting, who has lived in Bradford for all of his 74 years, is a central figure not only in town affairs, but also in a segment of the Bradford economy that runs on handshakes, favors and wringing every last bit of value out of an item before relinquishing it to the rubbish bin.

The room he’s sitting in — with its low ceiling and cinder block walls — is a testament to the things Nutting sees value in.

To his left is one shelving unit containing seven stereo speakers, as well as VCRs, stereos, CD players, and a carpenter’s level. His right is crowded by another set of shelves full of old telephones and remote controls, clock radios and lamps.

The young men carrying items in and out, pricing used VHS movies, clothing and Christmas ornaments, are part of a large network of friends and family who rallied around Nutting when his home of 43 years, located less than half a mile away from the thrift store on South Main Street, was badly damaged in a house fire in June.

Nutting, one of nine children, has made many friends through various stints of public service — he was chief of police for 15 years, and president of the group that organizes the Connecticut River Valley Fair. He currently acts at various times as a justice of the peace, a commissioner on the Water and Sewer Board, and one of the state’s longest-serving fire wardens, with 50 years of continuous service.

Though he never married, he has many holiday options, beginning with an invitation from a man he calls his son, though they’re not biologically related. Lots of people, he said, are having Thanksgiving.

“My sister up the street’s going to have it,” he said. “And my sister down the street’s going to have it. Probably, by the end of the day, I’ll have gone to all three. I’m not really alone.”

Nutting has many friends, but support is shrinking for the rough-and-tumble, casually regulated character that has marked Bradford’s past. Town leaders have been calling for a more prosperous — and tidier — vision of the community’s future.

In Nutting’s lifetime, Bradford’s population has doubled to 2,800, and in recent years, the middle class has been quickly giving way to sharply divided camps of rich and poor. During the most recent four-year period on record with the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of Bradford families earning more than $150,000 doubled, from 2.3 percent to 4.8 percent in 2013. At the same time, the percentage of families with children living below the poverty line rose from 15.6 percent to 23.8 percent.

Nutting has done well for himself — in addition to the thrift store, he rents a four-bedroom house to low-income tenants on Cobblestone Alley, right around the corner from his fire-damaged home — but his culture is more closely linked to those at the bottom end of the economic spectrum.

Town leaders say Nutting’s tolerance of junk at the Cobblestone Alley address place him into conflict with an ongoing effort to clean up Bradford.

On Nov. 12, the town fined Nutting $500, the maximum amount, for the rental property, where over the years his tenants have filled the lawn with items including race cars, plastic children’s toys, a dog kennel, tires and bags of garbage.

Nutting’s phone at the thrift store rang. The volume was turned up so high that the caller’s voice was very audible as she identified herself. They’re on a first-name basis.

“Robert, I have a box of candle jars and I was wondering if you would give them a home,” she said.

“What kind of jars?” he asked.

“Candle jars. You know, they’re jars that you use with hot wax to make candles.”

“Oh, candle jars,” he said. “Yes, you can bring them by.”

He hung up.

Another donation, he said.

Neighbors Trigger Crackdown

Just up the hill from Nutting’s rental property on Monday afternoon, the grass outside Larry and Carolyn Coffin’s South Pleasant Street home still bore the straight, evenly spaced lines of the lawnmower’s last pass. The blue jays were raiding a nearly full bird feeder. In their living room, the Coffins and their dog, a silky-haired poodle named Henry, looked down the grade at Nutting’s house, where a workman was continuing to haul junk and trash into a Dumpster.

“It’s our neighborhood,” said Carolyn, a retired dental assistant. “It’s where we live. If he were a caring landlord —,”

“And had some rules,” Larry, a retired history teacher, interjected.

“And had some rules, yes,” Carolyn said. “You really need to take care of the neighborhood you have your house in.”

Like Nutting, the Coffins have deep roots in Bradford. In addition to his 42-year teaching career, Larry has published two books, written articles for area newspapers including the Valley News, served as president of the Bradford Historical Society, and is, like Nutting, a justice of the peace. Carolyn, who graduated from Bradford Academy in 1964, has been fundraising, planting flowers and erecting holiday decorations for the Bradford Beautification Committee.

The Coffins were among several neighbors who went to the Nov. 12 meeting to complain about Nutting.

Lori and Stephen Knipe, who also made complaints at the meeting, live across Cobblestone Alley from Nutting’s rental property. Standing in her kitchen, Lori Knipe gestured out the kitchen window, where the sooty remains of Nutting’s South Main Street home are clearly visible.

“We’ve been here 15 years and we’ve had this problem for 15 years,” she said. “My husband and I haven’t sat out on our sun porch once.”

Every time the Cobblestone Alley house was vacant, Knipe said, they would hope for a responsible tenant who would be a decent neighbor. They’ve often been disappointed.

A recent set of tenants, she said, “they just did it for me. We were thinking about putting the house up for sale.”

Nutting said he usually rents to people that he knows, and it’s always a handshake agreement, rather than a signed lease.

“People say to me, ‘What are you renting to them for?’ I say, ‘Well, I feel bad for them,’” he said.

The four-bedroom house has served a growing population of low-income renters. In 2013, a whopping three-quarters of Bradford residents paid more than the government-recommended 30 percent of their incomes toward rent, up sharply from 1999, when just 42 percent of renters paid such a large proportion of their income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nutting described both the Coffins and the Knipes as nice people. And they said they bear Nutting no ill will.

“Nobody’s out to get him,” Knipe said. “We just want him to do something.”

The day after the Selectboard meeting earlier this month , Assistant State Fire Marshal Tim Angell condemned the Cobblestone Alley property, and posted signs saying it can’t be inhabited. Nutting said he plans to bring the building up to code by altering the size of the windows, installing hard-wired smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and equipping the home with fire extinguishers. If he can satisfy the requirements, the house won’t be vacant for long.

Nutting has a friend in need of a place. He’ll be a good tenant, he said.

Cleaning Up Bradford

Despite Nutting’s assertion to the contrary, Bradford’s town leaders do have the right to tell him what’s junk and what’s not — at least in a legal sense. The language in the local “Outdoor Storage of Junk and Junk Vehicles” ordinance is very clear.

It defines junk as “old or discarded scrap copper, brass, iron, steel or other metals, or materials including but not limited to tires, household appliances, furniture, rope, rags, batteries, glass, rubber debris, waste, trash, construction debris, manufactured wood debris, plumbing fixtures or any discarded, dismantled, wrecked, scrapped or ruined motor vehicles or parts thereof.”

The 2008 ordinance is one of several adopted over the last 10 years, as community leaders seek to stop activities unbecoming of Bradford’s emerging new image.

“Bradford has worked incredibly hard over the last few years to clean up a lot of derelict properties,” said Bradford Selectboard Chairman Ted Unkles. “It’s made a huge difference.”

Also in the last decade, the town has adopted a 2005 ordinance that bars ATV riding on all but three town highways; an updated 2007 dog ordinance requiring, among other things, that female dogs in heat be confined; a 2007 sewer ordinance that prevents people from dumping grease and oil down their drains (among other provisions); an updated 2009 traffic ordinance that sets speed limits (20 mph on Cobblestone Alley); a 2011 driveway-access ordinance regulating the manner in which driveways can be built; and a sign ordinance in 2014 limiting the size of signs in residential neighborhoods to 6 square feet.

Last year, police Chief Jeffrey Stiegler pushed to roll back the cutoff time for serving alcohol, citing concerns about late-night rowdy crowds. That effort was dropped when the only business it would affect, the Dusty Bottle, rolled back its alcohol-serving time to 1 a.m. under an administrative action by the state, Stiegler said.

Stiegler said the push to eliminate eyesores from the community is beneficial to law enforcement.

“When you have that sort of element in the community, it attracts a certain kind of element to it,” he said Tuesday. “I’m very pleased to see the passion people have about wanting their community looking polished.”

Since the junk ordinance was passed, the town has sent warning letters to four or five property owners a year, Unkles said.

During the Nov. 12 meeting, the Selectboard also set a $100 fine for Pacific Union Financial Bank for property it owns at 9 South Pleasant St., for violating the junk ordinance.

Nutting said that he supports efforts to improve the community, but the town is misinformed. He said that, every time he received a notice, he cleaned up the property.

“Three times now, we’ve cleaned it up,” he said.

He also said that the Selectboard should have invited him to weigh in on the situation, rather than issuing the fines unilaterally.

“I think the Selectboard all should have come out and questioned me about, ‘what are you doing?’ ” he said.

Unkles said Nutting has received multiple warnings.

“It pains me to have to cite him like this,” he said. “But the fact that he’s been a volunteer firefighter and on the Water Commission for I-don’t-know-how-many years doesn’t exempt him from our ordinances.”

Burned Out

The issue between Nutting and the town is unlikely to end with the $500 fine.

Nutting’s South Main Street house looks much as it did in the days following the fire, with some walls blackened, some burned away. Items in the yard include a cooler and a basketball, while a carnival-style popcorn machine sits in the barn’s remains. State police investigators said the fire was started by three young children playing with fire in and around the two-level barn. Trespassers are now discouraged by signs and wire fencing wrapped around the house’s exterior.

Nutting said he’s gotten a few quotes to have the house, which dates back 230 years, knocked down; after 45 years there, he’ll be sorry to see it go.

“Someday, I’m going to drive by and it’s not going to be there,” he said. “That’s going to be hard.”

Though the insurance company paid for the purchase of a new house on Old Post Road, Nutting was disappointed by the amount he received for damaged possessions. In documenting his claim, he made a list of 540 items, but the insurance company, it seems, doesn’t value things in the same way that Nutting does.

“I had a coffin in my house,” he said. “Not a casket, but a coffin, an old-fashioned wooden coffin. They wouldn’t pay that because a coffin isn’t the kind of thing you find in a household.”

Ditto for his poster collection. Ditto for his World War II gas masks. The collectable liquor bottles survived, and have been moved into storage, though many of them are now molding from exposure to water.

Nutting is part of an old Yankee tradition that decries waste. The home may be fire-ravaged, but it still has useful items in it.

In the months since the fire, he’s sold some things. A recliner. Pieces of the front porch, including the granite steps and the columns.

It’s rewarding work, but time-consuming, and increasingly out of place in Bradford. Unkles said he also plans to inspect Nutting’s South Main Street property to see whether, five months after the fire, it complies with the town’s dangerous buildings ordinance. If it’s found to be out of compliance, Nutting could face more fines.

But Nutting’s work in the house is not done. Perhaps he’ll locate a buyer for the sofa and the love seat, he said. They’re covered in leather, which he said has made them forgiving of the damage from the fire, water and smoke.

“All someone has to do is clean them up, spray a little freshener on them, and they’re good,” he said.

There’s also good timber, including hand-hewn beams from 1785. Then there are the windows, melted by the fire’s extreme heat. He has a friend who makes jewelry from glass. Perhaps she could use it, he suggested.

In fact, he said, when you think about it, there’s nothing wrong with the slabs in and beneath the cellar.

“Those are good foundation stones, and some granite blocks in there.” He mulled for a moment. “I may want to keep those for myself.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.