Some Eco Villagers file class action suit against landlord

  • Former Walden Eco Village resident Adrian Allard removes the remainder of his belongings from the Peterborough village on Wednesday. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Former Walden Eco Village resident Adrian Allard removes the remainder of his belongings from the Peterborough village on Wednesday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Former Walden Eco Village resident Adrian Allard removes the remainder of his belongings from the Peterborough village on Wednesday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Former Walden Eco Village resident Adrian Allard removes the remainder of his belongings from the Peterborough village on Wednesday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The now-vacant Walden Eco Village in Peterborough. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The now-vacant Walden Eco Village in Peterborough. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The now-vacant Walden Eco Village in Peterborough. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The now-vacant Walden Eco Village in Peterborough. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The now-vacant Walden Eco Village in Peterborough. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 1/6/2021 4:40:34 PM
Modified: 1/6/2021 4:40:24 PM

Thirteen of the 25 displaced former tenants of Peterborough’s Walden Eco Village have signed on to a class action suit against landlord Akhil Garland and his associated trust and company.

The class action suit was filed on Dec. 30 with the Hillsborough County Superior Court. An emergency temporary order associated with the suit demands that Garland return all deposits to tenants, obtain safe, adequate residential housing in the region for them, and pay for their moving and rehousing expenses. “That’s our immediate concern,” Peterborough attorney Jason Bielagus said. “Some people are temporarily staying with family and friends, others are living in hotels. Obviously, none of those situations can go on much longer.”

Several residents with names appearing on the suit declined comment. On Tuesday, Garland said he couldn’t speak to the efforts made to rehouse or reimburse residents, citing the pending lawsuit. On Dec. 25, Garland said that he wasn’t allowed to directly contact his tenants due to the threatened legal action.

Although some residents have succeeded in finding their o wn housing, Bielagus said the landlord still holds responsibility. “If you create a problem, it’s your responsibility to fix it,” he said. To that extent, the temporary order suggests Garland hire a real estate broker to assist with rehoming residents.

The suit also seeks longer-term damages, such as reimbursement of future rent if it’s in excess of what a tenant would have been paying to live at the Eco Village. “If somebody goes out and finds comparable housing in the area, they don’t have the luxury of time to negotiate,” Bielagus said, and if they have to move to a place where rent is significantly higher, “there’s an argument [Garland is] liable for that additional cost.” It also seeks past rent paid for housing that was represented to be residential dwellings “but lacked proper permitting, and had significant code violations that place the structures and their occupants at immediate risk,” according to the class action complaint. To that extent, former tenants of the Eco Village could attach themselves to the suit, Bielagus said. The hearing for a temporary order is scheduled for Thursday at 11:30 a.m.

What is happening on site?

It’s unlikely tenants could be allowed to return to live on the site anytime soon, according to town officials. Garland and town officials discussed the possibility of reverting the seven permitted cabins on site to the conditions they were originally approved under on Dec. 14 prior to the eviction deadline, “meaning staff overnight cabins accessory to the Well School with no cooking facilities, maintaining a minimum level of lighting and battery-operated smoke detectors,” Town Administrator Nicole MacStay said, so tenants could be allowed to stay on a temporary basis. “I can’t speak as to why he did or didn’t do that with this property,” MacStay said.

When asked whether reverting could even be possible given that many tenants on site in 2020 were unaffiliated with the Well School in any way, MacStay acknowledged that use of the site had drifted since the original permits were granted, but couldn’t speak to the current status of the affiliations. Regardless, Garland has since “mothballed” the property, Fire Chief Ed Walker said, hiring a plumber to drain all water from the buildings and filling heating loops with antifreeze, the way you’d prepare a summer camp for the winter.

When asked about his immediate plans for the site, Garland offered no specifics and said he was "unclear about what's even possible there," without an approved subdivision plan for the site. Town Planner Danica Melone recommended that Garland and Fieldstone Land Consultants engineer Chad Branon request a continuance of their application to subdivide and build more homes on the lot, which was originally scheduled for Dec. 14, two days before the town-ordered eviction of the Eco Village, MacStay confirmed.

Garland and Branon said they had wanted to participate in that hearing, and still plan to present their proposal at the Jan. 11 Planning Board meeting, although since Dec. 14, Melone has asserted that the proposal is out of compliance with its 2010 Zoning Board of Adjustment approval, and the project would need to go before the Zoning Board before advancing with the Planning Board, according to emails provided by Branon on Tuesday. Branon said he doesn’t believe Melone’s advice applies in this situation, and that Garland was seeking counsel on the issue.

Communications obtained by the Ledger-Transcript between Garland and the town indicate that the Dec. 14 Planning Board meeting was the first opportunity available for Branon and Garland to present their subdivision proposal after Branon asked to  get on an agenda on Oct. 26. A Nov. 11 staff report on the proposal by Melone indicates that it 26 requested residential units are more than what’s allowed under Open Space Residential Development rules, and that the site could only support 17 dwelling units, and no more than four units potentially available as a “density bonus.”

The Ledger-Transcript also reviewed the project’s site plans as provided to the town in June and November. All existing structures on site, including the unpermitted casita residences, were clearly designated as “existing structures” on the schematic for the plan that was provided to the town in early November, along with unshaded “proposed structures”. The proposal’s stormwater report, dated Nov. 9, also referenced “15 dwelling units.” The Nov. 11 staff report referenced the unpermitted structures and advised that Code Enforcement Officer Tim Herlihy was reviewing the site “to ensure that the applicant is in compliance with their original site plan approval as well as building and fire code.”

The town was not aware that there were unpermitted structures on site prior to November, MacStay said. All existing and proposed structures were pictured in the same way on the map provided to the town in June in advance of the project’s preliminary hearing with the Planning Board,  but there was no legend entry for “existing structures” on that map, only an entry for “proposed structures.” The Town Planner didn’t realize, at the time, that some of what she thought were proposed structures were already standing, MacStay said, and no site visit was made at the time.  

Town’s investigation of fire hazards on site

Although no permits were ever pulled for gas work on site, the Peterborough Fire Department was able to identify and speak with the contractor who initially installed propane heaters in the casitas in 2016. “What he described that he did in 2016 was… not what we found in 2020,” Walker said, indicating that somebody had modified the system at some point in between. “We’re trying to figure out, if we can, who did it,” he said. The Fire Department also reviewed documents Garland provided from a gas check performed on site in January 2018, where a contractor indicated that the work completed was a temporary installation, a common practice for wintertime work, Walker said. The responsibility to pull permits for a gas installation is shared between the owner and the contractor, Walker said, and that he couldn’t speak to why that process never happened. Although the state Fire Marshal’s office was called in for help, the local Fire Department is in charge of the investigation now, he said.

Earlier in December, Walker said someone installing gas without a license could face consequences. When asked whether the town was going to further investigate the party responsible for the electrical and gas work that was deemed to be a serious safety threat, Walker said that it was fortunate that no injuries, fatalities, fires, or explosions happened on site under those conditions, despite “pretty significant potential.” He said he was unsure how the town would pursue the issue, but that they  would ensure that anything being done on site would meet every required standard going forward.

Bringing the electricity and propane on site up to code is “a chicken and egg” kind of problem at this point, Walker said, since such work would require a permit, which the town can’t grant because the buildings in question aren’t classified as residential dwellings.

Displaced residents

On Wednesday, former Eco Village resident Adrian Allard stopped by his former home –  a casita labeled the “White House” on a handmade sign hanging from the front porch –  with a rented U-Haul to collect the remainder of his belongings. 

Allard, who is currently housed at Temple’s Birchwood Inn, said he doesn’t know where he’s going next; maybe North Carolina, the only state he’s visited a or Michigan, where he has family, or perhaps Arizona, where a friend lives.

The one thing he knows for certain – he won’t be returning to the Walden Eco Village, where he’s made his home for the past year and change before being evicted along with the rest of the Peterborough village in December. 

In August 2019, the Antrim native and ConVal graduate was living out of his car when a co-worker told him about the Walden community and its tiny, affordable casitas, deep in the woods, surrounded by gardens and farm fields. Allard said Garland sent him an email describing the working farm and the tight-knit community. 

“It looked really cool,” Allard said, “you grow your own vegetables, live off the land, there’s farm animals here – it’s this community.”

When he moved in, he found the location wasn’t exactly as he’d pictured it. 

“There were a couple chickens here, that’s it,” he said. “No one had used the garden in like a year, there’s an apple orchard all grown over...We were sold on an idea that he had 15 years ago, but it was not that at all.” 

It wasn’t what he’d expected, and it had its drawbacks. After he was laid off from a manufacturing job due to COVID-19, Allard landed a remote sales job with an hourly rate and commission, but the casita’s limited internet access quickly squashed that opportunity. Still, the “White House,” as the handmade sign out front dubbed it, was home.

“Everybody here was cool,” Allard said. “We made it a nice little community. It was quiet, but everyone knew each other, got along, and trusted each other.”

 Receiving the news that he had to vacate the premises was “traumatizing,” Allard said, and Garland’s attempts to apologize or lend a hand during the eviction were met with reticence.

“I called him out,” Allard said. “I told him, ‘you get to go home to your mansion’ – he has this huge estate in Harrisville – ‘and we’re all homeless. Don’t ask us how we’re doing.’”

Allard said Garland set him up in the Jack Daniels Motor Inn in Peterborough short term before securing him a spot at the Birchwood Inn. That has its challenges, too, as Allard’s car recently broke down, which means he has to secure a ride from Temple “back to civilization” to go grocery shopping. On Wednesday, Allard pulled a rented U-Haul up to the White House and loaded the last of his belongings into the back before leaving his former home in the rear view mirror. Allard said he’s unsure of how long he’ll be able to stay in Temple or where he will go next, though he’s leaning toward “somewhere warm.”

“In situations like this, I’ve lived out of my car before,” Allard said, “but in the winter? It sucks.”


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