Property Owner, Hanover Officials Clash Over Junk, Access, Pollution Allegations

Sunday, January 31, 2016
Hanover — When it comes to solving problems, Hanover doesn’t lack for resources. The municipal budget runs well over $22 million; the tax base has swelled to $2 billion with the properties of doctors, attorneys, financiers and professors; and a stable of lawyers waits at the town’s command. And yet, for the past 14 months, the town’s efforts to clear a public trail have been foiled, time and again, by a man who lives in the woods amid a pile of junk.

David Vincelette, 59, has intense sea-gray eyes and smooth, boyish cheeks. He is tall and thin and he has a slight stoop that lends his walk an appearance of purpose. But his most prominent feature is his beard, a chin curtain with no mustache that, on his austere face, brings to mind Captain Ahab. And he is an Ahab, of sorts, chasing after an unattainable goal without regard for odds or consequences. Ask Vincelette a question, and the answer will work its way back to his primary obsession: a belief that the town is polluting its own waterways.

Where did he grow up? Outside of Pittsburgh, Pa., a steel town whose factories and mills dumped waste in the three rivers framing the city. To swim in that water would have been to share it with industrial detritus.

“It gave me an appreciation of clean water,” Vincelette said. “It was such a polluted town.”

For more than a decade, Vincelette has maintained that the town of Hanover is allowing toxic petroleum waste to leak into public waters — part of what he believes is a scheme to save the municipality millions in maintenance costs. Perennially engaged in small-bore disputes with the town, Vincelette views them as battles in a larger war against a conspiracy to silence him.

The latest clash is over material that he keeps on his property, a 2-acre plot filled with wood pallets, old cars, propane tanks and miscellaneous hunks of rusty metal that he finds in junkyards, behind factories and through trades with other collectors. In recent years, the scrap has spread beyond the land around his house and now creeps onto the trail that runs to the north through the Tanzi Natural Area, a preserve owned by the town, exasperating the joggers and nature lovers who use it.

‘Beyond Absurd’

Down by Mink Brook, where shaded pines hide a vale of junk and shanties, Clay McAllister left his can of Budweiser on a discarded refrigerator and turned to warm his hands over a firepit. He and several others, some of them formerly homeless, live in ramshackle houses on Vincelette’s land and help him with his chores.

A native Tennessean, McAllister had never seen a river freeze over. He gazed down at the water, listening to it rush through the creeping January ice.

“There’s a lot of chi down here,” he said, savoring the spiritual energy of the place. “A lot of chi — and a lot of junk.”

For more than a year, neighbors have been complaining that Vincelette’s possessions are blocking the trail and ruining their appreciation of land that everyone should be free to enjoy.

“This issue has gone on too long and is beyond absurd,” Heidi Reynolds, of nearby Storrs Road, wrote in an October email to the town. “We have been more than patient and will no longer accept further delays in the clearing of Mr. Vincelette’s junk and debris from the Tanzi Natural Area. I urge you to please take action now. We all deserve safe, unfettered use of this beautiful area. He has infringed upon our rights and safety for too long.”

In October 2014, the Hanover Conservancy, which sold the property to the town in 1967, notified Hanover officials that they were in violation of the deed, which forbids “dumping, injection, spraying, or burial of trash, debris, waste, or materials known to be environmentally hazardous.” After repeated efforts to get Vincelette to remove his possessions from the trail, the town filed suit in Grafton Superior Court that fall.

The case has dragged on for more than a year. Vincelette, who has degrees from Dartmouth College and Vermont Law School, has been representing himself, filing brief after brief in his own defense: motions for injunctions, contempt, reconsideration and so on, to the point where the town has spent roughly $20,000 in legal fees on this case alone, according to Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin.

To reach his land, Vincelette turns off Lebanon Street and drives down the trail, through town land, to a short footpath leading to his house. In court, he has contended that, for decades, Hanover has not met its duty to keep the right of way clear, thereby abdicating its authority over the land. But judges have ruled that, whether or not the town must maintain the trail, this does not allow Vincelette to leave his scrap on town property.

Steadily but surely, Hanover’s lawyers have cleared aside his arguments, leaving less and less space for resistance.

In May 2015, a Superior Court judge ordered Vincelette to begin removing his materials from the town’s land, a directive that has proved difficult to enforce. The town contends in court documents that when workers have arrived to move the junk, Vincelette has intervened, verbally abusing them and even interfering physically, blocking the trail with, at various times, a car with no back wheels and a felled tree.

Several contempt-of-court hearings have gone nowhere, as judges, despite holding Vincelette in contempt of the order, repeatedly have refused to give town officials the arrest warrant they say they need to keep him out of the way, temporarily, while they clean up.

Judges have ruled that issuing a pre-emptive arrest warrant would rob Vincelette of his right to defend himself in court. Meanwhile, Hanover officials so far have found themselves unable to arrest him outside of the court’s authority, because his efforts to block their cleanup have not risen to the level of an illegal act.

In Court, Again

During a Jan. 6 hearing in North Haverhill, the town’s attorney, Laura Spector-Morgan, contended that Vincelette had again interfered with town contractors. On Nov. 6, she said, he parked a car across the entrance to the trail and sat in it as contractors and police stood by.

“He said he would wait there ‘until reinforcements arrived,’ ” Spector-Morgan told Judge Lawrence MacLeod, asking him to jail Vincelette until the town could clear the trail.

As usual, Vincelette represented himself. He called Hanover Police Lt. Bradford Sargent to the stand, ostensibly to prove he had not obstructed the trail, but soon his questions gave way to a tirade on the town’s use of asphalt, which he called a “state and federal crime.”

“The police officers in this town have been made part of an illegal conspiracy,” Vincelette said in court, “and I want to stop it.”

A prized piece of recreational land for Hanover, Mink Brook and its environs are especially dear to Vincelette, who has lived on its banks for 32 years and built his life around the place. He even baptized his daughters in the stream, which drains into the Connecticut River south of downtown.

Vincelette believes that the asphalt Hanover crushes and spreads on the roads as a replacement for stone gravel is washing into the brook with the rain, allowing toxic petroleum compounds in the asphalt to leach into the water.

Using recycled pavement instead of gravel is not an unusual practice: Vermont and Maine allow it, though New Jersey, for example, requires crushed asphalt to be sealed to prevent the chemicals within from leaching into the water.

Vincelette’s attempts to challenge the practice in court have been unsuccessful, and town officials, who deny his claims, have conducted tests showing a lack of contamination in the water.

“Let’s move on,” MacLeod said at the hearing, as Vincelette reiterated his views on the petroleum-byproduct conspiracy. “Can you question the witness, please? Thank you.”

Vincelette testified that he had been parked in the drive for only 15 minutes, and Sargent confirmed that he had seen the car for that period of time. MacLeod eventually ruled that Vincelette was not in contempt of court, since he had moved his car after the confrontation with police.

“This is probably the last chance,” MacLeod told him.

As Vincelette left the courtroom, he wagged a finger at the Hanover officials sitting in the gallery.

“How much longer can you hide?” he asked them.

Afterward, Griffin declined to respond directly to Vincelette’s allegations, instead noting that the town has prevailed both in court and with state regulators.

In 2011, Vincelette filed for an injunction in Superior Court to stop Hanover’s use of crushed asphalt on gravel roads. The judge, Peter Bornstein, denied the petition, saying Vincelette had not demonstrated that the use of recycled asphalt would cause immediate harm to the water quality at his home.

In 2005, Vincelette complained to the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, which sent officials to investigate. The state experts concluded that asphalt had entered the water, but not in levels sufficient to cause concern.

Later, a test of Storrs Pond by the town showed negligible levels of asphalt and petroleum byproducts.

Conscientious or Combative?

Vincelette’s crusade sometimes has led him afoul of the law. He has a minor criminal history, with two convictions on charges of disorderly conduct, a violation, as well as a misdemeanor assault for pushing a Dartmouth College security officer in 2014 at Parkhurst Hall as he attempted to visit the college president during open office hours.

In a pending case, Vincelette is charged with trespassing on college property during a visit he made in the fall to the medical school to protest Dartmouth’s use of asphalt.

Based on his history, town officials have painted him as volatile and dangerous — Griffin, for instance, suggested notifying the police before visiting him at his home. But the people who live on his property see him differently.

“Dave is one of the kindest and most conscientious people I know,” Gus Soodek, of Reading, Conn., said in an interview this month.

As Soodek conducted a tour of the land, he pointed to interesting bits of junk along the way: tiki torches, desk chairs, gaskets and piping, a Jacuzzi pitched on its side, mossed over like a glacial erratic.

He took particular interest in items that could be salvaged: a scooter, half-buried in snow, that just needed a new battery; a rusty pickup truck lacking only a motor.

“Everything on this property has something that can be useful,” he said.

Soodek dropped out of college this fall and was briefly homeless before Vincelette took him in. A writer and actor, he wants to return to school at Landmark College, in Putney, Vt., in a year’s time. Until then, he said, Vincelette’s place is a safe haven.

“It’s a place to sleep and relax,” Soodek said. “It’s a home, basically. I don’t know what any of us would do if we had to move out.”

Though Vincelette’s three adjoining Mink Brook properties, at 91, 93 and 95 Lebanon St., are not directly in jeopardy in court, he may end up losing them anyway due to unpaid taxes.

His three properties together are assessed at about $260,000, and two of them are mortgaged; those properties have been saved from seizure by the bank.

But on the third property, 91 Lebanon St., Vincelette owes about $7,300 in back taxes and is often just hours away from the town’s taking it away, according to Griffin. In 2008, he lost a 36-acre parcel and house on Old Dana Road after failing to pay taxes, which led to the property’s seizure by the town.

As he describes his past battles, Vincelette has a way of tightening up. He furrows his brows, widens his eyes and presses his fingers together, slashing at the air as he recounts his manifold persecutions.

His resentment traces back to 1984, the year he graduated from Dartmouth and moved to Mink Brook. He had saved and borrowed several thousand dollars to repair the main house on his property, but ended up spending the funds on a new septic system required by the town.

On rare occasions, he unwinds. When the subject turns to his time at Dartmouth (an avid skier, he chose the college for its team), or to his years in the Vermont National Guard, his muscles visibly relax and his voice softens.

As a Guardsman, he was assigned to the Army Mountain Warfare School, in Jericho, Vt., a job that took him to places like the Italian Alps, where he trained soldiers and skied to his heart’s content. In those moments, he looks like a different David Vincelette.

“I should have backed down,” Vincelette said. “Any person with common sense would have backed down. I don’t have any common sense.”

Sitting on his couch at home, he looked out at the brook. “People here say, ‘Oh, Dave Vincelette’s crazy. He doesn’t make any sense.’ But even crazy people have rights.”

Vincelette is getting by on a small amount of disability pay that he receives for a bad hip, along with help from family and friends. As with most misfortunes, he blames the town for the collapse of his rental business, which he hopes to restart by listing his property on the website Airbnb.

The cleanup attempts have stopped for now. Vincelette said he had warned public works employees the week after the hearing not to confiscate any more of his possessions.

Griffin told a different story, writing in an email that Vincelette and his wife, Anna Hranovska Vincelette, had been “aggressively verbally abusive with town staff.”

“His wife climbed onto and into a large dumpster in an attempt to block our work,” Griffin wrote.

The town’s attorney planned to re-file a motion to have him arrested, “so that we can clean up the property without interference. Given that this is a civil case, short of assaulting a town employee or employee of the cleanup firm, (the Hanover Police Department) cannot arrest David for violation of a civil court order — which is why we have been stymied to date.”

Vincelette said his wife had scaled the garbage container to retrieve items of hers inside. She, however, said she never went into the container, adding that whatever was in there wasn’t worth the effort to recover.

Local residents, meanwhile, are far from satisfied with the town’s efforts. They say they believe Hanover police do, indeed, have the authority to arrest Vincelette.

“You said a few months ago that this was a civil action,” Jim Reynolds, of Storrs Road, wrote to Griffin in November. “If I fell a tree over a town road, and block it with my car, it is a criminal act. You are empowered, by state statutes that we have pointed to, to clear town property and his property. We entreat our leaders to take care of our overall safety and well being!”

After the loss of his Dana Road land, which involved the demolition of his house and the confiscation of a great amount of junk, Vincelette is not optimistic about his chances here.

“I know how it ends,” Vincelette recalled saying to his wife recently. “We die, and they take all our stuff.”

The Hanover Conservancy, for its part, has attempted to buy Vincelette out of his Mink Brook land — an overture he didn’t take well.

“We did make him an offer,” said Adair Mulligan, the group’s executive director. “We understood that he might be facing some financial difficulties and thought we could help both him and the brook and this situation.”

She added, “He chose not to take advantage of it.”

“It’s like trying to sell someone water when their house is on fire,” Vincelette said in a separate interview.

At the Jan. 6 hearing, MacLeod, the judge, suggested that Vincelette’s troubles were of his own making.

“Let me ask you this,” MacLeod said: “Why don’t you just remove this (junk) and put this on your property?”

Vincelette’s eyes widened. The fingers pressed together. He was digging in for an argument.

“It isn’t that simple, sir,” he said.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at or 603-727-3242.

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