Ossipee — October 26, 2006 — Ending a painfully long and expensive civil lawsuit revealing the ability of one man to long defy state wetlands rules, a judge ruled in favor of an Ossipee Lake housing association seething that their “steadfast” neighbor turned their cozy cove into a “toilet.”
The Ossipee Bluffs Association spent years and tens of thousands of dollars trying to force longtime seasonal resident, Donald Lee, to answer for two debris-gathering underwater walls he built in the Lovell River delta. The association suit asked for nearly $1 million in damages to mop up the massive mess. It would be the largest ever sediment removal in state history, according to OBA estimates.
Superior Court judge James D. O’Neill, however, did not award the cash outright to the victorious association, but ruled instead that the Beverly, Mass., man must accomplish the daunting feat at his “sole expense.” The state, the ruling indicated, will help determine just how large will be the cost Lee must bear, and how much of the dirt is his fault.
Lee has avoided state directives before. Lee, who admitted to twice building un-permitted breakwaters red-flagged as illegal by the N.H. Department of Environmental Services, showed “a steadfast refusal to accept the expert opinions of the state,” association lawyer, Jed Callen said.
“I understand it better, and I’m going tell you how it is,” he said of Lee’s stolid stance.
Blaming Lee for a flood of stifling debris, OBA vice president Steven Foley now likens once-pristine Bradford Cove enjoyed by his family for decades to a commode without a drain.
Foley, like his four siblings, is a second generation second homeowner, described the destructive mechanics of a sandbar he said the stubborn neighbor triggered when he messed with nature. For years the stone and gravel walls collected silt where the river empties into the big lake, state experts said, amassing into a giant hooking arm. The emerging system formed an unnatural “vacuum” sucking in and holding onto leaves and silt, Foley said.
In the years since the sand hook has taken hold, a “devastating” toll has been taken on the cove and its property values. It littered beaches, filled a boat channel and clogged the old swimming hole – now a “mattress thick” cake of leaves and sticks, Foley said.
The blunt testimonial delivered on the witness stand during a week-long trial last month detailed what an expert OBA witness called a “deranged” mess that has turned longtime lake lovers out of the water.
“Swimming is really nonexistent now,” Foley lamented. “I can remember my mom doing laps.”
Lee, who in his pro se defense said he has spent over 4,000 days across 48 years in the home his father bought decades ago, blamed winds, natural processes and the association itself. The homeowners group, he charged, did significant damage of its own by dredging a basin for their boats.
“What has not been established, Your Honor, is what has caused the damage to the cove,” Lee, whose second home is on Lattie Shores Road, told the judge.
Lee claimed DES ignored the association basin, honing in instead on his walls which he acknowledged the agency found may have “contributed” to the problem. O’Neill ordered Lee, who reportedly has been quite strained financially by the suit, to consult engineers and DES, again, on a plan to haul out the soaked debris. The state says he has failed to follow through on past clean up orders.
Likening it to an icy dune drifted up against a snow fence, Callen said it will cost over $900,000 to clear the cove. But Lee has called his collective adversary “a big bully” capable of driving him towards ruin. In an early court filing, he said years of crossings with the powerful association and state mandates that he tear down his walls, have left him and his finances exhausted, and his character defamed.
“With 140 families contributing just $500, (the association) brings a $70,000 legal purse to pursue me,” Lee wrote in a court motion.
In 1989, DES found a first un-permitted breakwater reaching out into the cove. Lee, after he was handed a citation, said he complied with the state, and took it down. But Lee built another without permission and around 2001 was cited again; and again he apparently took it down. But enough collected sediment remained to draw repeated actions from the OBA and from state wetlands authorities, to which Lee has not always answered accordingly.
The Attorney General’s office has filed its own suit seeking a similar ruling against Lee on behalf of DES and a N.H. Wetlands Council order. It is scheduled for trial in the spring.
The AG’s suit asks for dredging, but also refers to civil penalties as high as $10,000 a day for two years Lee was allegedly in violation of state wetlands laws. So far, only the OBA has won in the county courts.
Lake front homeowners and local officials have grumbled before about the inability of the state’s increasingly thinly-funded environmental services agency to enforce its own rules. Even on Ossipee Lake, the fifth largest in New Hampshire, and an economic anchor for the rural area, they say, has DES ineffectualness surfaced.