Peterborough: Garland subdivision, lawsuit continue

  • A sign along Garland Way in Peterborough. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 2/10/2021 7:19:22 PM

The Peterborough Planning Board heard an updated presentation on the subdivision proposed for the former Walden Eco Village on Garland Way Monday night. The Board opted to hold all public questions and comments until a dedicated hearing in March in the name of providing adequate time for all concerns.

The proposed subdivision seeks to combine two existing parcels owned by the Garland Family Realty Trust, bring seven standing cottages on site up to code, and construct 19 additional residences following Open Space Residential Development (OSRD) criteria.

Applicant Akhil Garland first described his plan to subdivide the Walden Eco Village in July 2020, at which point tenants were renting the seven cottages and nine tiny houses, or casitas, on site. The project’s application process led town staff to discover that 15 structures on the property lacked required permits, including all the casitas. Town officials observed hazardous electrical and gas configurations during a December site visit associated with the application, which caused the town to evict the site’s 25 tenants on Dec. 16. A class-action lawsuit between Garland and 13 former tenants is ongoing.

“There’s been a lot of pain and unhappiness having to do with the loss of the neighborhood that existed on the parcel of land that we’re gonna be talking about tonight,” Planning Board Chair Ivy Vann said, speaking as an individual. “The Planning Board’s role is to ensure that whatever is built there going forward is as good and as beautiful as it can be.”

Chad Branon of Fieldstone Land Consultants walked the virtual meeting’s 68 attendees through the latest plans for the property, which is accessed via Garland Way off Middle Hancock Road. The seven cottages that were originally permitted on site would be brought up to code while the 15 unpermitted structures would be repurposed as sheds or workshops, he said. Each of the cottages would go on their own quarter-acre lot, as would the 19 additional homes slated to stand in vacant spaces in the existing “Garland Court,” and along existing dirt roads to the north and west. Residents would park their cars at one of two parking areas and walk down the lanes to their residences, maintaining a “nice, village setting,” he said, and all buildings would be serviced by a single well on the north end of the property and a single septic system south of the houses.

Garland Way would be widened to 20 feet, and all other existing roads on the site would be widened to 15 feet, Branon said. A homeowner’s association established for the site would manage the roads, drainage, landscaping, and signage so there would be no infrastructure burden for taxpayers to bear, he said.

The plan’s number of dwellings relies on the Board granting a number of bonuses, as provided under OSRD regulations for siting houses in dense clusters, providing public trails, maintaining agricultural operations and managing forest on the property.

Citing previous compliance issues on the site, Board member Tyler Ward noted that the town would need to figure out how to ensure those conditions, if granted, were maintained into the future. Garland’s lawyer, Chris Swiniarski, suggested the Board could address those concerns with an easement, a condition of approval, or work it into the associated homeowners association.

Although Vann said she and Town Planner Danica Melone believe the quarter-acre lots further the spirit and intent of the OSRD ordinance, the regulations specify a three-quarter acre minimum lot size, and Vann asked Branon to work up a schematic with the larger lot size for consideration.

Members of the public can review the latest plans for the subdivision in the Office of Community Development, Vann said, and can submit letters to the Planning Board anytime between now and the next hearing, scheduled for Monday, March 15, at 6:30 p.m.

Garland’s legal representatives filed responses and motions to strike and dismiss various parts of the class action suit last Wednesday. The responses come almost a month after the Jan. 7 hearing where former Eco Village tenants requested a temporary order that would award immediate damages related to the surprise eviction in December.

All 13 of the tenants currently represented in the suit have received their security deposits since filing the suit, lawyer Jason Bielagus confirmed, but in addition to further damages related to emergency moving and temporary housing expenses, and answering what Garland owes to the three tenants whose leases were supposed to run through April, May, and August 2021, respectively, the suit seeks to hold Garland and his enterprises accountable for renting dwellings with multiple fire code violations on top of missing permits.

“The landlord has been representing that he had habitable residential properties, and people paying him for that for 10, 14 years,” Bielagus said. “It turns out they were not.”

In their response, Garland’s lawyers maintain that tenants agreed that they found the premises “habitable” when they signed their leases, and therefore it was the tenant’s responsibility to ensure their rental was up to code. “We contend that it was habitable,” lawyer Steven Dutton said. “It’s the plaintiff’s burden to establish that there was a substantial deficiency.”

Garland’s lawyers are also seeking to remove Garland as an individual from the suit, arguing that Utopia Living, Inc., Garland’s company, was the lease holder rather than Garland as an individual.

A signature page on a lease features heavily in that dispute: the tenants supplied a lease in which Garland’s signature appears alone, without any reference to Utopia Living, but the signature in the landlord space on that document doesn’t match Garland’s handwriting, Dutton said, and supplied Garland’s copy of the lease. However, the two tenant’s signatures on that alternate copy don’t match their handwriting, Bielagus said. Both sides implied forgery in the other’s lease copy in an email thread attached to court documents.

Once the case advances so that both sides can request and introduce more documents from one another, there should be a resolution to that particular dispute, Bielagus said on Wednesday. Bielagus said he plans to file objections to the defense’s motions, and awaits the judge’s order regarding the payment of immediate damages, which could help some residents find new housing.

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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