On lawyer’s advice, Chester board moves toward claiming Yosemite

Carroll at sb

Town attorney Jim Carroll fills the select board in on his findings. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

By Shawn Cunningham
©2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Chester Select Board voted on Monday night to have the town’s attorney begin the process of a “quiet title action” to establish a clear title to the Yosemite Firehouse as a first step toward owning the property.

The about-face from earlier meetings came when James Carroll — the town’s attorney — reported that the town has a claim to the property and as such could be named in liability suits that could arise.

Carroll told the board that this was “one humdinger of a title – not overly complicated in the number of transactions, but the way the transactions occurred left ambiguity around where this sits.”

“What we can tell is that this is not a marketable title,” said Carroll  who also said without a marketable title, the town could not get title insurance or a bank loan and in some instances grant funding. Reading from a report he prepared, Carroll ran through the chronology of ownership saying that his objective was to find who has the title to the property.

In 1880, Joseph R. Richardson had given the property where the firehouse sits to the Fire District No. 2, with the stipulation that if the district was to cease to exist or not use the building “for the purposes it is now used,” the property would revert to Richardson or his “heirs and assigns.” With the transfer from Richardson to his wife, Hattie Billings, the property lines did not include the fire station and did not convey the reversionary language, so the “chain of title” that comes down to current owner Sarah Weingarten did not include the fire station. “Clearly, the conditions of reversionary interest do not exist,” said Carroll.

Carroll said that it appears that the right of reversion never was granted to subsequent owners, including Gertrude Tabor Hazen, who bought the property in 1937. Thus she and her husband Pember Hazen had no right to claim reversion and give the building to the Chester Historical Society. Carroll said that he did not think that the historical society had ever rightfully owned the building.

The “quiet title action” is a court case designed to determine who has the best claim to a property and to establish a clear title.

It appears that the right of reversion never was granted to subsequent owners of the Yosemite Firehouse, including Gertrude Tabor Hazen, who bought the property in 1937. Thus she and her husband Pember Hazen had no right to claim reversion and give the building to the Chester Historical Society.

Jim Carroll
Chester Town Attorney

If a judge decides that the fire district did not cease to exist in the merger that created the Chester Fire Department and that storing fire apparatus in the building after the construction of the town garage actually fits the dictionary definition of a firehouse, then the Town of Chester would have a strong claim to the property.

One wrinkle would be if an heir of Joseph Richardson were to make a claim, but a quick check of Census records for Richardson did not show any children living with him and either of his wives from 1860 to 1920.

Carroll’s conclusions are almost exactly the opposite of the opinion of Chester attorney John Holme, who reviewed ownership and historical documents one year ago. Holme concluded that the town had no claim to the firehouse and that the Hazens’ deed to the historical society was valid and would be hard to challenge.

carroll takes questions

Carroll takes questions from the audience

Carroll told the board that the town’s earlier involvement and its claim to ownership could open the municipality to liability claims should anything happen on the property. This echoed a contention made by Chester resident Suzy Forlie last June when she and others told the board that if the town owns the building, it’s liable for it whether it acknowledges that ownership or not.

Carroll contended that grant-makers might be reluctant to give money to preservation efforts that cannot show a marketable title for a property. But on  Friday, Caitlin Corkins, grants coordinator for Vermont’s Division of Historic Preservation, told The Telegraph that a title issue would not disqualify a project. “First, the building and the applicant have to be eligible. Then it’s important that there be a plan for the building and (assurance that) the applicant is in it for the long haul. From there, the committee would score the grant and consider it on its merits. If the ownership is really unclear, an application could be less competitive.”

On Tuesday, Andrea Ansevin-Allen, community program specialist with USDA Rural Development, said that requirements for its Community Facilities program depended on what kind of aid is requested.  “An applicant would need title insurance only if it was applying for a loan. For a grant, the applicant would just need a deed.” Ansevin-Allen said that the USDA would be happy to work with Chester on this project when the town is in a position to apply.

Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, said that while his organization does not have large grants to give, it stands ready to give technical assistance and other support to preserve what he called “a unique and very important historic structure.”

Carroll told the board that a quiet title action could cost $5,000 to $10,000 and take three to six months. These could both be less if the proceedings were not adversarial and if the historical society supported the action in court. Society President Ron Patch said they would. The board voted to have Carroll research and prepare the action and report back at the July 6 meeting.

While Carroll was still on hand, the board went into executive session to discuss a settlement of legal actions with Jason Carrara. The suit arose out of Carrara’s use of residential property on Marc’s Drive for commercial uses without a permit. Coming out of the executive session, the board voted to authorize the town attorney to settle the suits with Jason Carrara dropping his appeals, paying a $2,000 fine and stipulating to an agreement permanently prohibiting him from the unpermitted use of his property for storage, parking and servicing of commercial trucks.

Water project, 1761 v. 1766 and town website

naomi johnson at sb

Dufresne Group engineer Naomi Johnson updates the select board on the progress of the water project

Naomi Johnson of Dufresne Group told the board that the water project has come in $346,000 under budget, which leaves enough borrowing capacity on the favorable bond terms to take care of a fire hydrant project for $35,000 and to replace a motor control unit with a variable frequency drive at the Jeffrey Well for $100,000.

Johnson recommended doing these upgrades, but suggested that the town wait until the project is “substantially complete” before going ahead with them. Johnson also said that the main under the Williams River by the Sunoco station was found to be cast iron and not asbestos/concrete as earlier suspected. The cast iron main will not need to be replaced, saving the water district about $120,000.

The board accepted bids for three culvert replacement projects. These were M.A. Bean with a bid of $124,150 for the Potash Brook Road culvert and Hunter Excavating with bids of $349,000 and $184,730 for Farrar Road and Reservoir Road respectively. Work done later this year.

  • Former select board member Bill Lindsay asked the board to change the dates of establishing the town on three highway welcome signs and on Town Hall from 1761 to 1766 so that visitors would not be confused by the upcoming celebration of the 250th anniversary of the granting of a New York charter to the town.

Lindsay, who has been a select board member on and off for 17 years, was on the board during portions of the Galkin v. Chester lawsuit, in which the town argued that it was founded in 1761 and re-named in 1766. The issue was whether Galkin had the right to mine talc on his property. Under the 1761 charter, the property was  glebe  land that was leased to Galkin. In the New York charter, there are no glebe lands and Galkin asserted that he owned the land outright and could mine it. The Vermont Supreme Court found for the the town and affirmed that the town operates under the terms of the 1761 New Hampshire charter.

  • And, resident Frank Bidwell asked for a completion date on the town website noting a number of deficiencies.  He was told that someone was helping the town office staff with the site, but that she was difficult to get in touch with.
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