High court rules for town, landlords in dispute over Brunswick college 'boarding house'

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BRUNSWICK — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court this week rejected an appeal from several property owners who claimed a Cleaveland Street residence was illegally converted to a boarding home.

The decision announced Tuesday, Feb. 2, dealt a blow to four neighbors of 17 Cleaveland St. They sued the town in 2008 after officials granted permits for the addition of several dormers to the historic home and barn.

The neighbors argued the changes effectively converted 17 Cleaveland St. into a boarding house for 11 Bowdoin College students, a violation of the town’s historic overlay zoning.

But the high court, in a 6-1 majority opinion by Justice Andrew M. Mead, agreed with a Superior Court decision upholding the town’s determination that the home is a two-household dwelling, which is a permitted use.

On Wednesday, neighbors involved in the lawsuit said they were disappointed by the court’s ruling. They said it sets a dangerous precedent that could lead to more historic homes being converted into apartments or boarding homes.

“Some people were erroneously made to think we were after students,” said Tricia Welsch of 15 Cleaveland St., a film studies professor at Bowdoin and one of the plaintiffs. “But we were really after the preservation of historic neighborhoods.” 

Michael Adams, another plaintiff, said he wasn’t sure what future steps, if any, the neighbors would take.

“Obviously we’re very disappointed,” Adams said. “We were confident that we had the better legal argument. … We as a group will need to sit and talk about where we go from here.”

The town is now reviewing zoning ordinances that could impact rules governing boarding homes. However, Adams wasn’t sure if his group would push for changes. Instead, he said it might try to make sure that alterations include timely notice for neighbors who might object to similar construction.

The owners of 17 Cleaveland St., Dimitri and Anthony Seretakis, could not be reached for comment.

In 2008, the dispute triggered several attempts by the neighbors to have the town revamp its ordinance to prevent single- and two-family homes from being converted into apartments.

Each time the Town Council voted not to intervene, arguing that such measures would interfere with a homeowner’s ability to profit from their investment and unfairly target Bowdoin students.

The council eventually adopted a nuisance ordinance amid objections that the measure couldn’t be enforced.

The issue initially led to several complaints from neighbors about noise, parking and partying at 17 Cleaveland St. However, those complaints have been less frequent this year. 

“This year’s group of neighbors have been exemplary, although the house seems to be taking a beating,” Welsch said. “The problem is we don’t know who we’re getting for neighbors next year.”

The Seretakises also own 262 Maine St., as well as property near Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Joseph M. Jabar said the financial agreement between the building owners and the tenants – who were divided into groups of five and six under the lease – does not define the use of the premises.

“Simply because the tenants are collectively responsible for rent payments, does not mean that the building in question is not a boarding house,” Jabar wrote.

“Carried to its logical conclusion,” he continued, “the majority’s rationale means that … there’s no limit to the number of occupants who could live at 17 Cleaveland.”

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net