In the next month, various town bodies will vote on a potential eminent domain taking of a road and grassy area in a case that has cost residents and the town hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and police costs in the neighborhood battle.
Crescent Bluff, a road in Pine Orchard which leads to the shore, has seen a protracted legal battle between the shorefront property owners and many of the residences on the street over access to the water, and how property once considered communal by some is now being managed. Once a battle between neighbors, the town and Pine Orchard Association have been pulled into the fight, and lengthy negotiations that would have the town buy the property outright have stalled.
But to understand the potential eminent domain taking, we need to know how the issue developed. With a lengthy legal record in the courts, we can put together the history using official filings and legal decisions.
The Baker Plan
In July, 1885, Ellis Baker filed in the Branford land records a development plan (Baker plan) for a beachfront community on the sound. At the time Baker filed the plan, he owned the property within the development, including the lawn, as trustee for the beneficiaries of a trust. The beneficiaries of the trust included Baker himself.
The Baker plan is a map depicting thirty-five lots, a strip of land labeled “avenue” and an area labeled “lawn.” The lawn lies between the lots and the beach that borders on the sound. The avenue, now known as Crescent Bluff (at one time it was called Maple), runs perpendicular to the sound.
The lawn is approximately forty feet deep between the southern border of the waterfront lots and the beginning of a concrete slope that leads down to the beach.
As the area was developed, properties that did not have direct waterfront access would still have access to the lawn and waterfront. Over time, there were neighborhood events, the area on the lawn was used for normal waterfront activities, picnics, sunbathing, etc by residents of the street. There were few, if any, issues.
In the early 2000’s, lot 3 (See Baker Map) was owned by Juanita and Joseph Millerick. Wanting to sell the property, the Millericks ultimately sold the property to Barbara Saggese, who I many of the legal filings regarding the property is either listed by her name or the entity she used to purchase the property, Beachcroft LLC.
When the listing was placed, the property was listed as “waterfront.” However, court records show that Saggese was made aware that property in front of the home, between the property line and the waterfront, was not included in the property, and that is was used by those on the street. Court records also show that Saggese was made aware of ongoing litigation between a different property owner on the shoreline and other neighbors on Crescent Bluff having to do with access to the waterfront, a fence that was erected and costs of paying for seawall and stair improvements.
Documents brought into evidence showed that the property did not directly abut the waterfront but rather the communal lawn.
After purchase in 2003, Saggese would file a lawsuit against the real estate agent, stating some key information regarding this was withheld, the courts ultimately did not agree.
Upset over residents using the lawn and access points as recreational areas, Beachcroft did some research to find out who had rights to the lawn and road. Without a clear answer, she contacted the original heirs to the property, and in 2015 purchased the rights from them for $150,000.
That purchase could only be done if all of the areas remaining were purchased together, and according to the agreement and Baker map that included the access area the lawn in question and the road.
The lawn area was then filed with the town, and the town recognized it in 2006. The property was designated 1A Crescent Bluff Avenue, and taxed as property.
Suddenly, neighbors who had become accustomed to using the property, access which also contributed to their property values, were no longer able to do so.
A significant aspect of the debate was if residents of the street had use of the property simply as an access point to the waterfront, or as a gathering place and communal location.
What happened next was a nearly nonstop stream of lawsuits appeals filings and costs incurred. The residents have appealed to town leaders through multiple administrations in the past, and while the town did maintain the road and had draining pipes under the access point to the sound, the town showed little interest in being involved in the litigation.
Late in the term of former first selectman Unk DaRos, however, the town was pulled in, as was the Pine Orchard Association.
At the same time, the area became, what DaRos would publicly call an “embarrassment to the neighborhood.” Neighbors reported that if they tried to access the area they were screamed at, and threatened with surveillance. Video cameras were set up focused at other homes on the street by some of the litigants.
At one point, a surveyor hired by Saggese staked out her property, which now included the road and about the first 5 feet on the front of each of the 30 properties along the street, with residents waking up to property line stakes across their front lawns.
Police records show over 250 calls to Crescent Bluff since 2006, many dealing with trespass claims. DaRos would also refer to this, stating that the local police “are not private security.”
While the road was largely treated as a town road, included town drainage, and maintained by the town, it technically was not. Improvements to the waterfront have been undertaken by the Pine Orchard Association, but they also do not own the road or access to the waterfront.
The use of the supposed communal and access areas has a significant impact on the property values of the homeowners on the street. Many have lived there for years and regularly used the waterfront lawn, and that use has been a major part of the endless stream of litigation that the neighborhood has seen.
In a letter to selectmen, the Pine Orchard Association (POA) makes its case for the property to be taken by eminent domain. The POA states that it has expended significant tax dollars in ensuring access to the water and has policed and managed the area. They also state that the property obtained by Saggese from the heirs of the site was never listed among the assets of those heirs, and that there had never been any claim to this property made prior to Saggese acquisition in 2006. “Until 2006, the town ownership of the roadway and the POS’s interest in the stairway was undisputed,” the Association writes.
“While there are three pending cases concerning Crescent Bluff matters, the POA believes that the towns utilization of its eminent domain power in this matter would relieve much of the angst and uncertainty that Crescent Bluff residents have endured since 2006,” the letter reads. “The Town has expended significant tax payer funds to pave, improve, and maintain the road. The public should have the benefit of those expenditures by being able to use the road without being exposed to the threat of trespass complaints.”
Branford is no stranger to eminent domain cases. The Tabor case is well known and cost taxpayers an estimated 19 million dollars in costs, legal fees and interest.
Eminent domain is essentially the taking of a property for public use. Most often, it is used to widen roads or build government structures.
In the Tabor case, the courts ruled the town fraudulently took private property after greatly inflating potential contamination claims and stating there was a town use for the site. In Tabor, the town attempted to make the case that the site was 1. At risk for contamination due to its proximity to a former landfill, and 2, the town was looking to use the property for fields and town facilities.
However, this case is significant different. In Tabor, the town developed a sudden need for the privately owned site after development, some of which was affordable housing, was proposed.
In Crescent Bluff, it is well established for over a century that the residents have made use of the street and access points to the waterfront.
As far as one can remember and there are records, the town has maintained the road, and the POA has paid for and maintained improvements.
Should the various town entities approve an eminent domain taking, the courts will demand the hiring of multiple appraisers to place a valuation on the site, that Saggese will be paid. With the recorded initial purchase price of $150,000, and with the property in question not being developable, the valuation is likely to be in that general area.
There have been negotiations with Saggese and the town about a outright purchase, but the two have been unable to come to terms. The negotiations are evidence there is an openness to sell the rights to the site; an eminent domain taking would allow the courts to oversee a fair purchase price.
The Board of Selectmen voted last week to move forward with the taking. The Representative Town Meeting will hear the matter Wednesday night, and could either vote of sent it to committee. Planning and Zoning typically hears the item as well, but not for an approval but its compliance with the Plan of Conservation and Development. Finally, it will be analyzed by the Board of Finance.
An eminent domain taking may also help solve a major issue in the area as well: with the lawn area becoming town property, approval would be needed for meetings on town space, much like it is for events held on the town green. So while access to the waterfront would no longer be in question, gatherings and picnics, cookouts, etc the neighbors may want would need approval, allowing the town to limit the number of events that are approved, if any.