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Jim Kenyon: New Approach Needed for Unity ‘Junkyard’

  • Photographed on Jan. 7, 2010, Stephen Janelle lives in Unity, N.H., on land he inherited from his parents. His cluttered yard has been mistaken for a junk yard, he said, and has been the cause of some friction with the town. “I can’t write but put this in your book: I’ve only got a third-grade education, but I can do things that other people can’t. I’ve made inventions with this stuff that I’ve patented. So how can it be junk if I’m using it? To be junk, it’s got to be worth nothing, and it’s worth something to me.” (Valley News - Jason Johns) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jason Johns

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 9/3/2017 1:27:29 AM
Modified: 9/3/2017 1:27:30 AM

At a rise in the state highway heading into the small town of Unity sits a vacant, 150-year-old house with boarded-up windows. Miscellaneous items ranging from broken power tools to empty egg cartons are piled in the parking area next to the house. There’s even an old dune buggy.

A six-foot-high wooden fence — a recent addition to the property — hides stacks of containers filled with who knows what from the view of passersby.

The fence door opens to a dirt path that slices through piles of refuse to an aging mobile home, set back from the vacant house and barely visible through the trees from the two-lane highway known as Second New Hampshire Turnpike.

This didn’t come about overnight. As long ago as 2002, Unity officials went to Sullivan Superior Court in Newport to force the property’s owners to clean up the 5-acre plot. A New Hampshire Superior Court judge ruled that the property, with its unregistered vehicles and motor boats, was an illegal junkyard under state law. The owners were given 3½ months to clean it up.

Months after the deadline passed without much progress, the town — with the judge’s approval — hired a private contractor to start the job. In January 2004, with still more work to be done, the town was awarded $13,052 in cleanup costs and legal fees from the owners.

Over the next five years, the property’s owners repaid more than $7,000 of the court judgment.

But the town wasn’t satisfied.

Claiming it has incurred additional costs associated with the protracted legal fight in recent years, the town now says the property’s owners still owe $11,298, including interest.

And the junkyard — as town officials call it — is back to nearly the same condition it was 15 years ago.

This spring, Unity asked Superior Court Judge Brian Tucker to jail the owners for not cleaning up the property and failing to make all the monthly $300 payments to the town.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent a fair amount of time sifting through court documents and town records, along with talking to residents. I’m now convinced that, after tying up the state court system for 15 years, Unity officials should adopt a different strategy.

From the looks of the property, their hard-line approach clearly hasn’t worked, and jail is not the right place for the owners. Here’s why:

Steve Janelle inherited the property where he grew up from his parents. Both were well-known figures around town. Bob Janelle, a machine tool worker who died in 2004, served as chief of Unity’s volunteer fire department for 18 years. Norma Janelle, who died in 1999, worked at Sullivan County’s nursing home in Unity.

Steve Janelle put in 36 years himself at the nursing home’s laundry. Now 65, he’s retired and lives off a government pension and Social Security.

Janelle has a long white beard and matching stringy hair. On two occasions when we chatted in his driveway, Janelle walked around barefoot, which he tends to do when his gout flares up.

Court documents describe Janelle as having “hoarding tendencies” — a characterization that he objects to. “I don’t collect stuff,” he told me. “I use it.”

In 2011, he told the Valley News, “To be junk, it’s got to be worth nothing, and it’s worth something to me.”

If one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, then Janelle is rich indeed.

He showed me plastic pails that he had tipped on their sides against the fence. He said it’s a good way to attract spiders. With the shallow stream in front of his mobile home having run dry, he’s set up buckets filled with water to provide temporary homes for frogs.

“They’re my pest control,” he said. “I don’t have any flies.”

Janelle has “only a third grade education, cannot read and has very limited ability to write,” according to court documents.

“I’ve only got a third-grade education, but I can do things that other people can’t,” he told a Valley News photographer in 2011. “I’ve made inventions with this stuff that I’ve patented.”

Janelle lives by himself. He uses a microwave to cook his meals, but keeps several gas barbecue grills as a backup in case the power goes out. “I’ve got six generators,” he said.

Janelle’s only living sibling (two brothers are deceased) is a younger sister, Linda Whitney, who lives in Tennessee.

Unity has drawn Whitney into the battle, arguing that she has a legal responsibility to clean up the property and repay the town for the work done in the early 2000s. In May, the town requested that she be jailed for contempt of court along with her brother.

Whitney’s attorney, Lanea Witkus, of Newport, told me that Janelle conveyed the property to his sister years ago without letting her know about the legal squabble.

Instead of going after her client, Witkus has argued in court, town officials should look in a mirror. According to Witkus and several residents I talked with, they allowed Janelle to go on what amounted to weekly scavenger hunts at the town’s dump, and later its transfer station.

Janelle loaded his pickup with cast-off lawn equipment, rusted barbecue grills and discarded building materials.

If Janelle is a hoarder, then the town has been his enabler. Unity needs to “refrain from letting (Janelle) take any items from the town dump,” Witkus wrote to the court in March.

Unity, which has roughly 1,700 residents, seems divided over what to do. A resident described it as a disagreement between old-timers and newcomers. (Actually, he called them flatlanders.)

Town records include an undated petition signed by 70 residents who asked the three-member Selectboard to “proceed with some type of action to clean up the property.”

Unity doesn’t have much in terms of zoning regulations, the Selectboard’s assistant, Tracy Decker, told me. Which isn’t surprising. No doubt the town has an anti-regulation faction. In the 2016 presidential election, 59 percent of its voters supported Donald Trump.

Last week, I brought up Janelle’s so-called junkyard during a stop at the Unity General Store.

“It’s one of those things that bothers some, and doesn’t bother others,” a woman told me.

“Every town has one,” she added, referring to Janelle’s hoarding tendencies. “They should leave him alone. He doesn’t bother anyone.”

Witkus pointed out that other Unity property owners have unregistered vehicles and junk scattered about. From my drive around town, they’re not hard to spot.

“I’m the only one in 15 years they’ve been after,” Janelle said. “Now they’re threatening to throw me in jail.”

I wanted to talk with Selectboard Chairman Edward Gregory and the town’s attorney, Michael Courtney, of Concord, about Janelle’s case and his claim that he’s being singled out. But they didn’t return my calls last week.

In 2011, a Superior Court judge granted Unity officials’ request to have Janelle banned from entering town buildings to talk about the dispute. Four years later, the Selectboard claimed that Janelle had still failed to comply on “numerous occasions, and has exhibited aggressive and harassing behavior toward the staff.”

I asked Janelle about it. “They don’t want me in there,” he said. “They know I’m a troublemaker.”

Janelle doesn’t have an attorney. But fortunately for him, Brian Tucker, the Superior Court judge who recently took over the case, seems to have a better grasp of the underlying issues than his predecessors on the bench.

Following a July hearing, Tucker wrote, “From his appearance and conduct during the hearing on the town’s (contempt of court) motion, there is reason to believe Mr. Janelle lacks the mental capacity to understand fully his obligation to comply with the order.”

Added the judge, “Understandably, the town is frustrated by the continuing lack of compliance. But its suggested remedy — to order the incarceration of Mr. Janelle until he arranges to remove the junk and debris — isn’t likely to achieve that result.”

The judge accepted Whitney’s assertion that she was powerless to get her brother to clean up the property and pay the town. Tucker also supported Witkus’ recommendation that a guardian be appointed for Janelle for “purposes of administering his affairs, including those relating to the condition of the property and complying with court orders and town regulations.”

Last week, Witkus told me that finding a qualified person who’s willing to do the job for free has been a challenge. As a fallback, Whitney could take on the responsibility, she said.

A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 3. Until then, Janelle told me, he’s staying busy working on his property — citing the fence that he paid to have built this summer.

“I’m cleaning up,” he said. “I’m getting ready for winter.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at
jkenyon@vnews.com.




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