Conflict Of Interest Allegations Leveled Against Historical Commission Member

By: Tim Wood

The house at 372 Stage Harbor Rd. was included on a draft map of a historic district for the neighborhood. TOWN OF CHATHAM GRAPHIC

CHATHAM – Allegation of conflict of interest were leveled last week against a member of the historical commission who is proposing to demolish an 80-year-old home on Stage Harbor Road.

Neighbors of 372 Stage Harbor Rd. said commission member Tim Smith was present at a Dec. 29 on-site hearing at the house and was actively advising the current homeowner while members of the commission inspected the 944-square-foot ranch on the property.

“I consider that unethical,” said Jeffrey Fugelstad at the commission's Jan. 2 hearing on a demolition delay request for the house.

Smith, who has an agreement with the current owners to purchase the property and plans to tear down the existing house and build a new one, recused himself and left the room during the hearing. He told The Chronicle later that he did not participate in the on-site meeting.

“I opened the house up for them to look at it with the homeowners,” he said.

Commission Chairman Frank Messina said while on-site visits, held to inspect properties that are the subjects of upcoming hearings, must be posted, under the state's Open Meeting Law they are not considered meetings. While members can ask questions, they cannot deliberate.

“It's merely for us to go and view the property,” he said, adding that property owners have the right to exclude all but commission members from an inspection.

The Open Meeting Law states that an on-site inspection is not considered a meeting under the law, “so long as members do not deliberate.”

Mary Jane Baker, whose family owns abutting property, disagreed. Because there was a quorum present at the on-site visit, it was technically a meeting and Smith should have recused himself, she said. She also questioned Smith's sharing of correspondence about the case with the homeowners, but Messina said all letters sent to the commission are public.

“Anybody in the world is allowed to request a copy,” he said.

Abuttor Anne Timpson said she was “alarmed” by Smith's participation in the site visit. “Mr. Smith intends to make a financial gain by the construction and sale of a new home,” she said. “You have a conflict here. It's a serious problem.”

Messina and other commission members said they resented the implications about Smith's character and allegations of a conspiracy.

“It hurts. We're volunteers. We try. You may not like our decisions...but to express the opinion and imply we're someone corrupt or somehow giving favoritism to an applicant” is wrong, he said.

Smith, owner of Minglewood Homes, said he's had projects before the commission in the past and recused himself from the hearings, but never before been accused of conflict of interest.

Last week's discussion didn't occur in a vacuum. Timpson and other Stage Harbor Road property owners have opposed the commission's effort to have the neighborhood declared a National Historic Register District. Results of a straw poll of property owners on the nomination will be discussed at the Jan. 16 commission meeting.

While two homes along Stage Harbor Road are currently under demolition delays, the commission voted unanimously last week not to impose a delay on the 372 Stage Harbor Rd. house. Commission members agreed that the home was more than 75 years old – the threshold for triggering review under the demolition delay bylaw – but said it wasn't historically significant.

A number of neighbors, some of whom opposed a demolition delay that was applied to a home on 391 Stage Harbor Rd., urged the commission to impose a delay on 372 Stage Harbor Rd. Timpson said photos indicate the house is older than the 1930 date on the town's assessing records. Baker and several others, in emails and letters to the commission, objected to Smith's plans for a new house on the lot. A demolition delay, Baker said, would allow a “fair and well-informed” process for determining the future of the home.

The small house, which is set back and not visible from the street, has been in the Bull family since 1937, said attorney William Litchfield. Four members of the family currently own the property, said Jonathan Bull. There are no unusual or historic materials in the house and it is rather plain, he said.

“If it were next to your house, you might even consider it unattractive,” he said. His brother Nathaniel said the house has been altered over the years, including having new windows installed and a porch removed. “The building is not in its original state,” he said.

Noting the tension in the air at the hearing, Bull said people were losing sight of the issues.

“There's no subterfuge, there's no conspiracy here,” he said.

Commission members said while the house had an old-time “cottagey” appearance, they agreed that there was nothing about the house that justified invoking the demolition delay.

Concerns expressed by some neighbors about the design of a new home, and about zoning and conservation issues, were not within the commission's purview to address, Messina said.

“Our authority is rather limited,” he said. “Either the property is historically significant or not.” If not, “the applicant can do what he wants.”