Town officials will ask voters at next week’s Town Meeting what to do with more than 100 acres of land on Wilson Pond that it acquired because of non-payment of taxes, but a representative of the property’s former owner says he was ready to pay the back taxes and grant the town’s wish to protect the land at the same time.

“What he wants is to finish the transaction that was proposed and fundamentally agreed to,” said attorney Nat Hussey, who represents former landowner Robert Pettengill, of Monmouth.

The town acquired the 118-acre lot after Pettengill failed to pay property taxes for five years. The town took ownership of the property in April 2013 after Pettengill had failed to reply to numerous notices of the unpaid taxes, Town Manager Aaron Chrostowsky said. Pettengill owes $34,000 on the property, which the town has valued at $400,000.

“We foreclosed on the property and, as a result, he ended up losing the property through tax foreclosure,” Chrostowsky said.

In the process, however, the town has rebuffed Pettengill’s effort to pay the back taxes and reclaim ownership of the land while still conserving much of property, Hussey said. Pettengill sold another property and was ready to pay the back taxes and fees, in accordance with a written proposal between Pettengill and the town, he said.

“When Bob attempted to pay the amount in September, he was told the town would not accept the funds and now wanted the town’s legal expenses covered as well,” Hussey said. “It is baffling that not only would the town refuse the $34,000 offered by Mr. Pettengill and forgo future property tax revenue by keeping the acreage off the tax rolls, but (is) now asking the voters to approve an additional $15,000 for litigation purposes.”

Residents taking part in Tuesday’s referendum vote, which will take place from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., at the Ladd Recreation Center at 26 Gott Road, will decide whether to spend that $15,000 for legal expenses associated with “quieting the title” on the House Road property. The maneuver, if successful in court, would free the land from any claims of ownership by Pettengill, his family or anyone else.

“It will settle the ownership of the property,” Chrostowsky said. “The town will have to present its case for ownership.”

CONSERVATION?

Quieting the title would open up a host of avenues for the town to explore as it decides what to do with the land, said Gary Kenny, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. The town can keep the property or sell it for the taxes owed, without quieting the title; but it cannot sell the property at market value or donate it to an organization to create an easement without settled ownership, Kenny said.

That is key because one of the options being considered is transferring ownership of the property to the Kennebec Land Trust, which has preserved more than 4,600 acres throughout the region. Executive Director Theresa Kerchner said the trust would invest only the time and money necessary to create an easement to protect the property from development if the courts have confirmed the town’s ownership.

“It really is up to the community to decide what the best conservation efforts are for the land,” she said. “We’re waiting for them to make that final decision.”

Making the right decision is crucial based on the importance of the property, Kenny said. It contains about 1,500 feet of frontage on the west shore of upper Wilson Pond. It is crossed by private roads serving several properties. Portions have been cut for wood, but the lot still contains large oaks, pines and hemlocks. It is one of the few lots in Wayne that is more than 100 acres. The land, which adjoins property to the south that is protected by a private trust, is a key habitat for large animals such as bears and moose, Kerchner said.

“Those are priority lands for us,” she said.

The property would provide recreational opportunities, such as hiking and bicycling, and, if protected, would ensure a protective barrier for Wilson Pond.

“It would be a block of forest that would protect the water quality on Wilson Pond,” Kerchner said. “I would say the most significant value would be from a recreational perspective.”

Chrostowsky said the town’s ordinance “strongly suggests” that selectmen notify the Kennebec Land Trust and other land preservation entities of property it has acquired through nonpayment of taxes. The land trust expressed an interest in the land when approached by the town.

The town’s conservation commission, meanwhile, is interested in saving the property as a town forest.

Kenny said selectmen plan to have a straw poll during Wednesday’s open Town Meeting to help decide the land’s future.

“We’re looking for guidance to see if there is a townwide interest in that becoming public land,” Kenny said. “There seems to be an overwhelming interest, at least from a small focus group. We want to see if that’s representative of the entire town.”

NO DEAL

Pettengill, who inherited the land, expressed interest in keeping the property once the town started having public discussion about what to do with the land, Chrostowsky said.

“We worked with him for about a year to get it back to him,” Chrostowsky said. “During that whole time, he said he was interested in granting an easement for the land trust. The theory was that it would lower his tax bill dramatically and allow him to harvest the wood so all parities involved would get something from it, because the town would get the tax money that is owed.”

Chrostowsky said the deal fell apart when Pettengill failed to have the property surveyed, as he had agreed to do, so that sections of the land could be sold to abutters.

“He never followed through with that,” Chrostowsky said.

Hussey agreed that Pettengill never contracted for the survey, but he said that was because he grew nervous about spending the money for the survey after the town thwarted his attempt to pay the back taxes.

“He’d like to finish what he started,” Hussey said. “He’s invested a lot in making this happen.”

All parties, including Pettengill, agree that much of the land is best suited for conversation. A large portion of the terrain, marked by steep slopes, is ill-suited for development or logging, Kenny said. The comprehensive plan, which is under development, calls for property to be set aside for recreation.

“This is looked at by many as a way to achieve that, or at least take a large step toward that goal,” Kenny said.

Hussey said Pettengill, the land trust and the town had hammered out most of the details of an agreement that would have put almost all of the land into a conservation easement while preserving a small portion for development. The basic terms were in writing in the spring of 2014. Hussey said later that year he asked the land trust’s attorney and the town for clarification on some final details but never heard back until last month, when the town sent Pettengill documents indicating it intended to keep the land and no longer was interested in finalizing the agreement with Pettengill.

“This came as a complete surprise to Bob and myself,” Hussey said. “The typical practice in Maine municipalities is to work with the taxpayer and to convey tax-acquired property back to the delinquent taxpayer upon payment of unpaid taxes, interest and collection costs. Mr. Pettengill offered to do this and go a step further by placing almost all his property under conservation protection. In essence, he agreed to pay the full amount, but would have gotten back substantially less than he previously owned.”

Kenny said he has heard from residents who are opposed to taking the land. While he understands that conviction, Kenny said in this case the town waited five years, instead of the three required by law, before taking the land, and it made several attempts to allow Pettengill to reclaim the property. At one point, Kenny said, Pettengill acknowledged receiving a certified letter from the town but said he never opened it.

“We do everything we can to work with the property owner so they can retain the property,” Kenny said. “Mr. Pettengill never made an effort to initiate anything like that.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

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Twitter: @CraigCrosby4