The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled on February 2 that the owners of a house on 17 Cleaveland St. were in compliance with Brunswick's zoning system, a decision greeted with contempt by four neighbors who sued the town in 2008 to prevent the owners from renting the home to 11 Bowdoin students.
The ruling was a significant victory for the owners of the home, Dimitri Seretakis '94 and Anthony Seretakis '95, who held that they were allowed to convert the house from a single-family residence with an accessory apartment—previously rented to two Bowdoin students every academic year—into a two apartment dwelling. The neighbors argued that the conversion changed the home into a boarding house, a distinction they argued constituted a zoning violation, as boarding houses are prohibited on properties located within the Town Residential 2 zone.
A boarding house, according to the ordinance, is "A building other than a hotel containing a shared kitchen and/or dining room, with sleeping rooms accommodating no more than two persons per room...which are offered for rent, with or without meals."
The court voted 6-to-1 in favor of the Seretakis brothers, with the case turning on the structure of the lease. The majority opinion, by Justice Andrew Mead, noted that the fact that the Brunswick Zoning Ordinance "does not bar the Owners from leasing two apartments at 17 Cleaveland to two groups of students is supported by substantial evidence."
The lone dissenter, Justice Joseph Jabar, wrote that "By narrowly focusing on the terms of the lease agreement, the majority's analysis elevates form over substance. Consistent with the Ordinance, we should be focusing on the use of the property."
The debacle began in May 2007, when the neighbors of 17 Cleaveland St. learned that the Seretakises, who had purchased the house that February, were planning to dramatically increase the number of students living there. The brothers expanded the capacity of the house by adding seven dormer windows.
Believing the renovation to be illegal, the neighbors contacted Brunswick Code Enforcement Officer Jeff Hutchinson, who argued that the brothers' plan did not violate the Brunswick Zoning Ordinance. According to the text of the court's decision, the neighbors appealed Hutchinson's decision the day he released it, beginning what would become over two years' worth of town meetings, court hearings and extensive legal wrangling.
Although the neighbors never received a favorable decision overturning Hutchinson's verdict on the classification of the house (they appealed the decisions of appellate courts twice), their whistle blowing did impact the Seretakis' renovations.
"Any kind of change is supposed to trigger a Village Review Board hearing; it didn't," said Associate Professor of Film Studies Tricia Welsch, one of the plaintiffs. "So we, the neighbors, called for it. The code enforcement officer didn't think it was necessary. He had simply rubber stamped it."
The Village Review Board, a panel which hears plans to alter historic structures in the town, eventually affirmed certificates of appropriateness for only five of the seven dormers.
"So they had to take the two off," Welsch said.
Yet the lawsuit accomplished little beyond facilitating the removal of the two dormers and providing a stimulus package to local attorneys.
In an e-mail to the Orient, Town Manager Gary Brown wrote that Brunswick had spent $28,473 on legal fees and expenses to deal with the neighbors' lawsuits. The neighbors declined to enumerate how much they had spent, as did Dimitri Seretakis—the brother chiefly involved in the process—though he did venture that the amount the three parties "collectively spent on legal fees was over $100,000."
Even though the case appeared dead at several points, a shared sense among the neighbors that a ruling in their favor was just around the corner motivated their repeated appeals. Indeed, one development in the process did favor their boarding house argument.
"Early on in the discussion, the fire chief for the town determined that in fire code terms, the house was a 'rooming house,'" Welsch said. "I [saw] no significant distinction between the two."
Hutchinson, the code enforcement officer, conceded in a phone interview that "under the National Fire Protection Association 101: Life Safety Code, which is enforced by the fire department, the definition for a rooming house is very similar to one that would be considered a boarding house."
But he pointed out that his office "used a whole separate set of rules," in accordance with the town's zoning regulations. To the frustration of the neighbors, the town's leadership never even attempted to reconcile the incongruity between Hutchinson and the fire chief's conclusions.
"It was a singularly unimpressive experience," Welsch said of her dealings with the town.
Exchanges with the involved parties revealed several areas of disagreement over the house and its residents. Community member Michael Adams, another one of the plaintiffs, wrote in an e-mail that Seretakis was jeopardizing the house and the neighborhood.
"Intensive use of a good 19th century house over several years by 11 students and their partying guests causes substantial damage to a valuable and irreplaceable structure," he wrote. "Student group occupancy of a building in a historic residential neighborhood is essentially incompatible with, and damaging to, the neighborhood."
Seretakis begged to differ.
"It would take many decades of neglect for the house to be brought back to the terrible condition it was in when I purchased it," he wrote in an e-mail. "I am very meticulous about how I upkeep that house. Repairs are always made promptly and I am continuously improving the property with painstaking attention paid to details. I even use period correct nails...Bowdoin students could live there for 30 or 40 years and it would still be in better shape than when I bought it."
Michael Adams said that the reason the neighbors took up the case was because they felt responsible for protecting the house.
"We believed it critically important to prevent conversion of houses near the campus into student group residences, in part to prevent damage to neighbors' enjoyment of their properties and in part to preserve historic, pleasant houses and neighborhoods that are significant assets for Brunswick's people," said Adams.
"The...group's frequent parties tend to be late and loud, they generate foot and auto traffic by noisy guests who come and go, and they disturb sleeping neighbors," Adams added. "Eleven students have too many cars for the house, and cars that are not wedged into a small driveway and yard are parked illegally on the street. The place is often a mess, with garbage left on the sidewalk and in the street, beer cans littering the yard and a neighbor's yard."
Seretakis said that the neighbors concerns were unfounded and that they needed "to get with the picture."
"There is no neighborhood around Cleaveland St.," he said. "It doesn't matter who lives in the house," he said. "They never gave me a chance; they never gave the students a chance. The students have proven to be great neighbors and I have proven to be a great landlord. They respect the house and keep it clean and tidy. I have yet to withhold a dime of security deposit from my tenants."